Tag Archives: Frank Conroy

Reading, memoir & hurt feelings

Geese in Westerville, Ohio, obviously can’t read but are enjoying the wettest spring here in about a million years. Photo by Candyce Canzioneri

The founder of Ploughshares, forty years ago this fall, DeWitt Henry is a novelist and memoirist who teaches at Emerson College in Boston. His books include Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations, a collection of linked essays on his generation and on his quest for psychological and spiritual truth; and a novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, about a working-class Philadelphia woman whose life is upset by the death of her father and by her younger sister’s takeover of the family home, which won the 2000 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

His most recent book is Sweet Dreams: a Family History.

A publisher’s synopsis:

A masterful memoir of a young boy’s passage from childhood to adulthood in a family of privilege torn by dark secrets: alcoholism, mental illness, dysfunction. As a complicated coming of age story, Sweet Dreams charts the journey of DeWitt Henry, well-known author, editor, publisher and educator, in his earliest struggles to find and achieve his own creative destiny. It is what Richard Hoffman calls “…a remarkable feat of memory delivered in extraordinary prose.”

 In a review, boston.com wrote:

While his older siblings escape into unhappy marriages, Henry seeks a refuge in literature. By fourth grade, he’s printing a newspaper (the Swiftset Rotary News) for his classmates. He ships off to Amherst, studies with Eudora Welty, writes a novella, and dreams of being a published author. At the Iowa Writers Workshop, the novelist Richard Yates mentors him. He eventually finishes a doctorate at Harvard and settles in Cambridge where, besides teaching and writing, he helps launch the venerable literary magazine Ploughshares.

Recently he sat down with Rusty Barnes for a wide-ranging interview for Night Train. Some excerpts:

Recognizable “real people” in art tend to assume that the art is about them, when it’s not. Strangers don’t care about them. They aren’t newsworthy entities. Nor is good memoir about the memoirist. The character and life of the memoirist is only an occasion for writing about the reader: the reader’s heart; the reader’s need for clarity and meaning. There is always the risk of failed art, of course, when literalness fails to serve figurativeness.

With my brother the problem wasn’t so much hurting his feelings as it was in challenging his own necessary fiction about our past. He objected to early drafts of my memoir supposedly on the basis of facts. His version was a whitewash, of course, and it was contradicted by the witness of my mother and other siblings as well as by all sorts of documentary evidence. He had his own reasons—or needs—to see our parents’ marriage as “happy” and our upbringing as positive. Yet oddly enough he was proud when “Distant Thunder” (the early childhood section in my memoir) was reprinted in The Pushcart Prize, and apparently handed it around to his colleagues, friends, and patients. . . .

As we worshipped Mom, Dad was the heavy, the family millstone. Chuck was the only one who wanted to see Dad differently, and who later in life, even though he himself was a surgeon, imitated Dad’s materialism. He was also the only one of us to succumb to alcoholism himself. In writing the book, I honestly believed that truth would set us free, all of us, including our children in their lives.

Initially, the richest and most inspiring memoir I knew was Stop Time by Frank Conroy, at least if you don’t count Wordsworth’s The Prelude. As I wrote more, and at different stages in the years of revising, along with Conroy, I loved Maxim Gorki’s autobiographies, especially Chidhood. Once I started teaching memoir writing, in addition to these two, I studied Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (besides her humor and her lyrical prose, I loved her optimism), the Conroy-influenced This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff , and the Wolff-influenced The Liars Club by Mary Karr. I respect but was never smitten by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I liked Russell Baker’s Growing Up and Maureen Howard’s Facts of Life. More recently, I have learned from Jim McPherson’s A Place Not Home, James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries, Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Kathyrn Harrison’s The Kiss, Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, Andre Dubus’s Broken Vessels, Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, and Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows.

I think of literature as a conversation between the dead, the living, and the unborn. I read to join in and talk back. I reread (and teach) favorites in this spirit, from all of Shakespeare (and writing about Shakespeare) to the American Short Story, with a focus on Anderson, Hemingway, Welty, Yates, McPherson, and Munro. Outside the classroom, I reread for different needs: to sharpen my idea of the novel, for instance (Ford’s Sportswriter, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Yates’s Revolutionary Road). In college, I saturated myself in all things D.H. Lawrence, but haven’t felt the urge to revisit Women In Love for years. I do reread Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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Filed under memoir, reading

Q&A: Tom Grimes on ‘Mentor’ memoir, 3-act structure & language as bedrock

From now on, anyone who dreams of becoming a novelist will need to read Tom Grimes’s brutally honest and wonderful “Mentor.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

I might say the same for memoirists in regard to Mentor: A Memoir. This celebrated new book is the story of Tom Grimes’s life and work as a novelist and his relationship with the legendary Frank Conroy (1936–2005), whose books include the classic memoir Stop-Time and the novel Body & Soul, about a young musician. Grimes was thirty two in 1989 and working as a waiter in Key West when Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, admitted him based on a promising except of a novel in progress.

Both men were on the upswing. Grimes had been writing seriously for a decade and finally had published a few stories; at Iowa, he’d take his prose and his storytelling to a new level. After Stop-Time, in 1967, Conroy had gone almost twenty years before publishing another book, his story collection Midair, but that September an excerpt of Body & Soul appeared in GQ and at the same time one of his essays was included in Best American Essays 1989.

As a teacher, Conroy focused on the “text” and with writing at the sentence level—his mantra was “meaning, sense, clarity,” Grimes writes—and he imparted this nugget: “The writer cocreates the text with the reader. If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading. So, you want to meet the reader halfway.”

Conroy plucked Grimes from obscurity because he believed in Grimes’s fiction, and from the start befriended him. In Mentor Grimes shows his initial fear and uncertainty in receiving such a gift, as well as his need to make of the complex Conroy a surrogate father. Both men had experienced unhappy childhoods—Conroy’s was chaotic and nearly tragic—and they bonded. And Conroy wasn’t only a famous writer and teacher, he was the quintessence of cool, a blithe spirit who “lacked the gene for dejection”; a heavy smoker and drinker, a professional jazz pianist, he was a natural but reluctant writer, a man whose inner self felt at risk in writing and who suffered before the “sinister urgency” of the blank page. “In his eyes,” Grimes writes, “I didn’t feel like a flaw in the scheme of things.”

Now an established author himself—his publications include five novels—Grimes writes in Mentor, “But something all along was missing—me. And this book redresses that absence. For twenty years, I believed Frank filled that absence. But he didn’t; my idolization of him did; moreover, my fictionalizing of him did. Frank is the protagonist of my best novel, and my best novel is this memoir. In the end, my memoir about Frank is a memoir about me. By writing about Frank, I could no longer turn away from myself, which is what I’ve done all my life. Now, I’m gazing at myself.”

Grimes, director of the MFA program at Texas State University, answered some questions for NARRATIVE:

The first thing I noticed about your memoir is how smoothly the narrative flows between scenes and exposition. Is that something that you have a particular talent for, or is it a skill you’ve developed from writing many novels? Do you construct such movement in rewriting, or is it a matter of working it out as you go, by feel?

“It’s a matter of working with what, after writing for twenty years, now comes to me by feel, rather than by

Tom Grimes

thinking. I wanted to compress the book to keep the reader curious about what comes next. Events don’t always appear in chronological order and I worked hard to make every transition smooth and crystal clear. I didn’t want to break a reader’s concentration. I moved sections around while editing so that the story’s sixteen years seem to pass quickly. After countless revisions, I believe I accomplished that.”

The protagonist, the character “you,” emerges right away as a testy, anxious guy; later, he suffers from depression and severe paranoia. Yet I found his brutal honesty about himself winning, and admired his courage in revealing his innermost doubts. Some memoir writers can’t—or won’t—show themselves in an unflattering light; and readers crave honesty but also seemingly want to identify with the protagonist in a memoir. Do you have any advice about achieving this balance?

“At first, I reacted angrily after meeting Frank Conroy. My anxiety and depression were always there; I simply drank to mask their effects. My paranoia came out of nowhere.  For nine months, my delusions terrified me. But I was able to describe myself in an unflattering light because I became a stranger to myself. And I stumbled upon something universal. A lot of people consider themselves failures but are afraid to admit it. Also, a relationship with a mentor seems to be a somewhat universal experience, too. So my advice to other writers is to write because you’re discovering things, not simply recalling the past.”

In Mentor you say you wrote twenty hours a week for ten years as an apprentice learning your craft. That’s over 10,000 hours—before the Iowa Writers Workshop. Do you remember your breakthroughs, or does the skill-acquisition ladder blur after so many years? As a teacher yourself, what are the first, fundamental skills you try to teach creative writing students?

“At twenty-four, I began to write every day. I found my ‘voice’ by accident one night when I was twenty-six and on my 29th birthday I completed my first novel, A Stone of the Heart. Its three hundred pages needed a lot of editing. Over time, I cut the novel to one hundred-fifty-pages, then was shocked when a publisher bought it. At Iowa I learned that language is the bedrock of every story. Now, I line edit my MFA students’ work. I’ll copy a passage, edit it, and hand out the revision. They’re always stunned by how much better a piece is once all the unnecessary language is stripped away. Also, students begin a story long before the first dramatic action occurs. Generally, the first three to five pages of a student’s story can be jettisoned. The other flaw is that they don’t follow it through to the ‘third act.’ No matter how short, every story has three acts. I make them list what happens in a story without judging it editorially. They find that they’ve spent a great deal of time on superfluous events. I make them read the first paragraph of published stories to see how quickly the action begins and I make them read every paragraph’s first line to see if they can follow the story simply from that. Usually, they can.  Clarity and revision. That’s where I tell them to start.”

It seems from reading Mentor that you learned about yourself in writing it. You indicated that, after all your fiction, you finally put yourself in your work. Was this as therapeutic as it sounds? Did you learn anything new about writing in creating Mentor?

“I never considered writing the memoir therapeutic; it was about my friendship with Frank Conroy. But when the first draft was finished I read twenty pages and thought, ‘Where’s Frank?’  That’s when my friend Charles D’Ambrosio read it and said, ‘Okay, the story is your story.  Frank is a large part of it, but he’s not the only part.’ As for writing, I learned how tightly I could depict events and describe backstory. I learned how to get into a scene as close to its end as possible, which gives the book a feeling of quickness. Emotions resonate because of this. But learning this took thirty years.”

Frank Conroy

You write of your sense of failure, yet you have published a lot, including books with big New York trade houses. Although you aren’t as famous as the scant handful of writers in a generation so blessed, you became a writer, an artist. Do you think your friendship with Frank Conroy, had he lived longer, would have ameliorated this feeling? Or is this sense intrinsic to being an artist, a practitioner in a field full of geniuses? Or is it just personal, in your case perhaps stemming from your difficult upbringing revealed in Mentor?

“It was strictly personal and my sense of failure stemmed from two things: being manic-depressive led me to think the worst of myself, and it enlarged my ambition. I wanted to be a ‘great’ writer, like Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Pynchon. I wanted my books to occupy the same shelf their books occupy. So it’s ironic that a book about my sense of failure may be my most successful book, and after abysmal publishing experiences with large houses, publishing with Tin House has been the best experience of my life. Writing Mentor put a lot of demons to rest. I no longer feel like a failure. What can writers take away from this? If you doubt yourself, you’re not alone; and never, ever quit.”

There’s a great interview between Tom Grimes and J.C. Hallman at Bookslut, and another, with Louis Mayeaux, at Southern Bookman. The Washington Post Book World ran a rave review of Mentor by Michael Dirda. There’s a wonderful 2002 interview with Frank Conroy at Identity Theory in which he discusses his approach to writing as a career (not for him) and his admiration of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a previous post, “Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir,” I excerpted his interview with Narrative Magazine.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, structure

Frank Conroy on mystery & memoir

Frank Conroy (1936 – 2005), author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (which has the strangeness of true art about it), as well as novels and essays, was director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He sat down for an interview with Lacy Crawford of Narrative magazine before his death. Some excerpts:

“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life. A lot of artists are trying to reclaim some of the language and territory so scorned. Life is a mystery, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream of America, everybody watching a rerun on TV. The country is in danger, but I don’t think that serious literature is in danger. Not yet. The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”

“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write. A lot of it is mysterious. I see writing from many super-bright people, IQs of 165, and I have to say, smarts doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere with writing. High intellect may affect what you write about, but finally what makes writing stand out is not about intellect. I’ve known three people whom I would call astrally intelligent—and all three of them tried to write, and they couldn’t.

“Good narrative puts the reader and writer in a position of equality. The text forms a bridge between two imaginations. A challenging narrative must nonetheless be welcoming to the reader. A good narrative has drive. But I don’t care for theory, and we don’t spend any time here on theory. Talking about writing is one thing, and writing is another. On the page you have to teach the reader how to read you. I once had a student who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. And then she wrote an amazing story, and The Atlantic published it, and I said, What happened? And she said, Back then, it was all in my head. I knew instantly what she meant, because it’s not supposed to be in your head; it’s supposed to open between you and the reader.”

“[Self pity in a memoir] puts the reader in a position of being asked to sympathize with the ill fortune of another person, to be the witness rather than the co-creator, which is what I want out of the reader, someone whose energy is pouring in. I’ll tell you what I think motivated the writing [of Stop-Time]. Rather than, Oh, what a tough time I’ve had, one of the engines that drove the book—beside the fact that I wanted to be a writer—was anger. I wrote the book to try to get even, in a way, to extricate myself, Hey, fuck you guys! I wasn’t aware of it then, but in retrospect I see it was definitely there.”

“To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I’d set for myself. And there was the feeling that every writer has described: you don’t feel like you’re doing it—it’s passing through you in some way. Also, I was able to write the book because I’d read so much. Before I got to college, I read everything. I read the Russians, the Brits, the French, the Americans. I was years into college before I was assigned a book I hadn’t already read. In the beginning I read in order to escape my circumstances. I absorbed so many of the conventions and the rules and the rhythms of good prose. When I read [George] Orwell, I couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful.”

“I didn’t remember everything about the past when I started the book, and I had a lot of chronology mixed up, and a lot of stuff was just repressed. The act of concentrating on the writing and trying to write perfect sentences opens closed doors.”

“In the culture at the time, everything was drugs, and beatniks, the whole beginning of the revolution. And there I was with a sort of semiclassical book, and they didn’t know whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Just before the book was published, the editor called me up and said, Should we call this fiction or nonfiction? And off the top of my head, I said, Everything in the book actually happened, so I’d call it nonfiction. Which they did. It was nominated for the National Book Award under the Belles Lettres category, and it didn’t win. About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won? I think what caused a certain amount of confusion both at the retail level in the bookstores and among the critics was that, when the first chapters were published in The New Yorker in 1965, it was almost unheard of to use fictional techniques to write about real situations. My name stayed the same, but I changed every other name.”

“I still write in longhand. I couldn’t compose on the typewriter, so I would write in longhand, and then, as I typed it up, that was a draft, and then there would be another draft and another draft … I think I typed the book by hand at least seven times. And each time, I was editing, and correcting, and changing little stuff. But again, I just had faith in it. Nobody can hold a whole book in his head. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. So you—Marilynne [Robinson] and I talk about this a lot—you jump in the pool, and then you learn how to swim. You don’t really know a lot about what’s going to happen. You just can’t! If you do, then you’re a hack.”

“Writing is a funny business. At its higher levels, there’s so much involved that we don’t understand, and can’t explain. One reason so many writers are anxious, drink so much, and fuck up their lives is that they hate not being able to control the writing completely. They’ve always got a big bet on the table, and the roulette wheel is spinning and spinning, and they can’t control it, and they’re afraid. You realize how miraculous and mysterious the act of writing is. You’ve been reading and listening to the voices of many hundreds of writers, and they succeeded, so perhaps you can. But you have fears, everybody has fears. Look at Joyce at the end, on his deathbed, saying, Doesn’t anybody understand?”

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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, memoir, narrative, NOTED, reading, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method