Tag Archives: Annie Dillard

To plan or to plunge?

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

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

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

Annie Dillard's self-portrait sketch.

Annie Dillard’s expressive self-portrait sketch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the craft, part two

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Get in shape before you impose “discipline.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens

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

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

Stephens: “Voice is the through-line.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephens-Days are Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

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, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’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. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

A life sentence

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one

down.

It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Sentence Man: Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. Variation in the length and structure of sentences creates music.

Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”

He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?

“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”

I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.

The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:

• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think.  The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”

• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”

• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”

• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”

• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”

• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”

I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.

Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.

Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.

Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of  successful sentences.

Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?

Next: Klinkenborg’s spare declarative chops.

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Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, editing, narrative, syntax, working method

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

The leverage of persona in memoir

Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard

A page turner . . .

Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.

Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.

I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.

Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:

At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.

”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.

A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:

From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.

This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”

Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’

A savory classic . . .

Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.

But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.

A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.

Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.

From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.

. . .

Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.

Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:

It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.

I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.

There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.

Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood

A droll appeal to the intellect . . .

As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi.  His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.

That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.

She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:

I was just waking up then [at age ten], just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.

. . .

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along: is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years, I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.

Is this sad?

Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.

Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:

They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.

. . .

But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.

And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.

An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.

Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.

But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:

And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.

A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.

To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.

Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.

As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.

He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.

A note to teachers about An American Childhood

While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.

Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, scene, teaching, education