Tag Archives: Heather Sellers

An essay of the empty nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The quotes on my desktop

There are quotes about writing on my desktop. Actually, they’re in a Word file, at the top of a journal I’ve kept for the last year as I produced a fourth version of my memoir. I don’t make journal entries every day, usually when things go really badly or really well. Or when I notice something I want to remember—like the fact that I won’t be able to remember or recreate or explain how I interwove narrative threads over the course of an entire 500-page manuscript. Such notes to my future self are intended to lessen consternation by that future, unknown self.

I know they won’t help. Even the ones that say: Hey Dummy, You did it like this. Because:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.”— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Check. Anyway, I seldom look at my journal—or my inspiring quotes. But they are there when I need them. Of course I’ve internalized other thoughts, such as Annie Dillard’s famous statement:

“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.  It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field.

As she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I believe it, and believe Dillard meant it. But I’ve also read her despairing comments about writing’s difficulty.

Here’s my top “working” quotes.

“The realest, most honest part of anyone is the part that suffers.”—John V. Wylie

John, my brother in law, told me that one day when I was concerned about going deeply into a painful incident in my memoir.  Retired from his huge Washington, D.C., psychiatric practice, John is a key member of my writer’s posse. He’s a sunny guy, so I was afraid that my darkest chapter, about when I got seriously hurt on my farm, would upset him. My injury was agonizing, and it made me despair. But in his old day job, John had heard worse.

So when John said the problem with “your chapter is it’s not dark enough,” I listened. He added, “I think it’s the writer’s duty to be honest about such things. People can relate.” I hold to that philosophy myself, and was so stunned by his reaction I couldn’t speak.

He’s helped me come far with this iteration of my memoir. And I have tried to help him with his magnum opus. Explaining its theories would involve summarizing more than thirty years, which is how long John’s been talking to me about evolutionary psychology, his passion, in his effort to understand human emotion and the nature of God. We’ve each had a hard, creative year. I wish I were smarter, so I could help him more—much of what he writes is over my head.

But just as I have inoculated him with the creative nonfiction bug, and unwittingly increased his confidence to tell me when what I write is flawed, he’s brought me along, with help from his buddies Darwin, Freud, and Kierkegaard. To paraphrase the detestable but quotable Rummy: “We must go to the keyboard with the reader we have.” Maybe in time you grow the reader you need, or deserve.

“Talent is a process, not a thing. Failure is not proof of an innate limit but rather is an indication of a skill we haven’t yet developed.” —David Shenk

I’ll never forget talking to an accomplished writer once at a conference. He was a “mid-list writer,” someone who has produced a string of books over the years, not bestsellers but good, diverse books, mostly memoir and nonfiction narratives, but also a couple books on writing. Suddenly he said to me, out of the blue, “I’m just a craftsman. Sometimes I get lucky.”

Maybe I was looking too star-struck. Having now spent almost six years writing a book, I understand better what he meant. Writing is rewarding, of course, but can seem so hard. And it’s a field full of geniuses, so it’s humbling. But I also remember something Brenda Ueland said in her classic If You Want to Write: We call “geniuses” by that one word, but we all possess genius. “Geniuses” just are people who act. They plug away. They may be smarter and more talented than most, and seemingly always “on,” but it is an illusion that work is easy for them. Virginia Woolf suffered terribly, from family baggage and bipolar disorder, yet she wrote—and she rewrote—endlessly.

Shenk is the author of The Genius in All of Us and made the comments above to a newspaper reporter when he was in speaking in here in Columbus.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.—Samuel Beckett

In the same vein, more poetically expressed. Many writers mention this quote. Again, it’s the idea that creating involves constant failure but that’s no reason to quit. And there’s a flaw in every work of art. Art cannot be flawless, if only because each recipient sees something different in it, and perhaps something lacking.

Books do not have to be great. They can be good enough.Heather Sellers

This is from her fine book about writing a book, Chapter After Chapter, which I’ve mentioned occasionally here. The day I added it to the list I probably needed to lower my standards to get some work done. But the statement occurs within the context of her rather paradoxical philosophy that you only accept the best you can do as good enough.

It’s carpentry.—Noam Shpancer, novelist, commenting on his writing.

This is another lower-your-standards quote, obviously. And I know Noam, an Otterbein colleague, tries very hard to make it more than just carpentry. But there’s a lot to that analogy nonetheless.

It takes stamina and self mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming.—Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

I love this memoir; I love this quote. I believe it is true about writing. It is true in my experience. The little breakthroughs amaze me. I can beat my head against the wall trying to solve a problem, to figure out how to do something, and suddenly the solution’s there—I think it’s the subconscious kicking in. Strangely, when a breakthrough is happening it doesn’t feel as big as it really is. It’s only later that I realize how much my ass was saved, again, because I showed up and didn’t quit.

Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement.  So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. I think it takes the pressure off the individual story or chapter, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising.  I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off.—Maile Malloy, novelist and short story writer

I read Malloy’s 2009 short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was amazed. The first story is about a lonely, crippled young Montana ranch hand who stumbles accidentally into the world of a pretty, striving attorney, a few years older than he, and falls in love with her. It can’t end happily, and doesn’t, but ends with a poignant, understated truth. The rest of the stories astonished and surprised me, too, and her writing is beautiful in its spare simplicity. Her sentences seem perfect in their punctuation, detail, and apt summary.

I read a few interviews with her on the web, and came across that quote in a Q&A on her web site. Malloy says she writes in some kind of a reclining “astronaut chair,” with a desk that comes across her lap to write upon.

For me, time spent writing indeed is probably more important than number of words of pages, because I think a quota could make my writing more mechanical. At least that happened to me once, as I recall, long ago. And, as it happens, I’d already abandoned my desk to write during the last year reclined in my leather La-Z-Boy with my laptop in, well, my lap.

“Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering.”—Mary Karr (from her Paris Review interview)

I admire the heck out of Mary Karr, as my review of her third memoir, Lit, should have made obvious. The Paris Review interview, which I learned about from Shirley Showalter’s blog 100 Memoirs, is a gold mine. I can’t wait to read the book Karr’s working on about writing memoir. In her own work, she always unites a powerful narrative with a strong voice and a larger awareness of herself.

This particular quote inspires me deeply—I think it’s a truth recognized by all great religions. I first encountered the overt notion of, well, yielding about seventeen years ago in my study of Buddhism, which has tools that seemed, and seem, much more codified and therefore generally helpful with less struggle than Christianity’s.

But having dissed my own tradition, I know that Christianity contains multitudes; it’s just that in my early practice I was too obtuse a supplicant to notice that it’s also about surrender and forgiveness. And of course community—working with and helping others. Like all religion, I suppose, it’s designed for adults who have experienced grief and who struggle with loss. Surely that group includes all writers, for loss is their stock in trade.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, MY LIFE, reading, religion & spirituality, working method

Revise, then polish

“The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, Sellersdevelopment, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.”—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition)

Not many years ago, I was having dinner with a writer I admired, and when she mentioned having multiple versions of an essay I said, “You do? That surprises me.”

“I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” she said.

At the time, I was still polishing and calling that rewriting or editing. I didn’t even know what revision is or that it makes new versions—sometimes two, sometimes four. Sometimes six. Keep them all!

Our cuts, restructuring, and additions we make in trying to make a piece work might not work themselves. Or parts of them might work and some parts won’t. We find this out down the road as a manuscript jells. (Note to MFA students: This why even the best teacher’s review early in the process can be unhelpful.)

Right now, I am adding a chapter that was dropped from my memoir a couple of years ago. That old limbo chapter—which existed in three separate versions—now fits the narrative. In picking and choosing from the previous three versions, I now have two or three more of “What Freckles Taught Me.”

(Freckles was a sheep—pictured in my last post—and today’s photo shows her last two lambs on my lap.)

As Heather Sellers says of revision in her excellent Chapter After Chapter, “It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a Richard,Lambsprocess of learning. Revision means you ‘re-see’ your piece. You see it again and again, in a slightly different light each time. Some lights are more useful, more flattering, more interesting. Some aren’t. Revision is information gathering. It’s not a slow and steady always-forward moving march toward perfection. Revision means making a mess, not straightening up. (Editing is straightening up.)”

Most of writers’ time is spent not writing but revising, she says. And I have to agree, since it took me a year and a half to write the 500 pages I’ve been reworking now for two and a half. Now the book is 200 pages leaner, and I remember what a former teacher, a veteran editor, correctly told me when it was still 100 pages longer and I said I was polishing: “Stop polishing and start cutting.”

What I tell my students about their rewrites of short essays is this: don’t just clean up the copy, make the suggested edits. Do a “save as” and submit a whole new piece. You may not like it as well, and you may be right, but you’ll have two versions of your masterpiece.

Sellers again: “Every time I work on a piece, I make some parts better and some parts worse. When I am sick of making versions, I choose the one I think is best, polish it to the best of my ability, and submit it to publication.”

When it gets rejected, she produces a new version, or maybe restores an earlier one: “With each new version, I learn more about the truth of the piece, so I know which one to pick, which one is right, even if it’s an early draft. Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters.”

But this is why everyone says writing is rewriting, which isn’t what I used to think; it’s not editing or polishing one perfect copy. There always are many ways to tell something and no one right way. But there may be an optimum version that’s discovered through revision. As Don Murray’s quote above indicates, what often happens is that it takes true revision, and many versions, for a writer to discover his structure and what he’s really writing about, his theme or deeper meaning.

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Filed under discovery, editing, memoir, MFA, revision, structure, theme, working method

Discovery and structure

Whether they’re brooders or plungers, all writers suffer the same problem, how to discover and recognize their good stuff or even to find their true subjects. Writers lament how much material they must produce and then cut. Writing can seem so wasteful, and that’s painful: the useless work! Art seems to rely on having lots to select from, but getting bogged down in the swamp in the middle of the pathless forest can dishearten: Where is this thing going?

For writer Heather Sellers, the key to strong content and to reader and writer interest is structural: she advocates Sellersinterweaving multiple stories. As she points out in “Use Braiding to Layer Your Story Line,” in the current issue (July/August 2009) of Writer’s Digest magazine, this works because it fosters discovery and juxtapositions. And it mimics the way people discuss several topics with each other at the same time.

It also reflects how we think. I realized the other day, while taking a long walk on the bike path with my terrier, that I was thinking about at least three different things. Sellers says she judged an essay contest in which ninety percent of the pieces failed because they concerned one predetermined topic. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing,” she writes. “Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”

In her current project, a memoir about her neurological disorder that impairs her ability to remember faces, she’s interweaving three narratives with images that refract off each other: childhood, problems from her condition, and her marriage and divorce. “When I tell the story of my Florida childhood, divorce will be in some of the images,” she writes. “Marriage is about recognizing another person, deeply, profoundly.”

Her structure works to discover her material: “[T]he book teaches me what it is about as I write it. That’s the best way to write a book: to follow a structure that allows you to discover wise insights, images, and a natural organization as you go along.” She adds for emphasis: “You need more than one thing going on at a time. And you don’t need to know how everything will work out. When you braid, happy accidents occur . . .”

I intuitively braided my essay “Remembering Paul,” which was a breakthrough for me. I’d been worrying, as I drafted my memoir of farming in Appalachia, how to write about the death of my hired hand. I feared it would feel arbitrary and heavy-handed to just launch into it. One day when I was cleaning out the barn, Paul’s image came to me—it was the first time I’d done that chore without him—and I got a notebook and recorded such memories as they arose throughout the day. My essay was embedded in the present, in the scene of me and my feisty terrier in the barn (he was killing rats) but was intercut with stories of Paul. The main barn setting resonated with loss of its own—my energy, animals’ deaths, disorder and entropy—that was deepened by Paul’s loss and by my seeing what he had meant.

A more instructive essay, and a better one because its past thread is shown so vividly as an unfolding parallel story, rather than told in expository anecdotes, is Sellers’s own “Tell Me Again Who Are You?” collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, edited by Lee Gutkind. Her story of undergoing face-recognition testing in a scanner at MIT is intercut with a narrative in the past of going away to college and finally breaking away from her crazed parents. There’s a lot going on in the essay but it’s always clear where she is physically and in time. A sad motif arises as she calls her husband nightly to report her ordeal at MIT and he can’t remember she’s not still there for a writing meeting. He’s not impaired, just doesn’t care.

Sellers says she uses braiding as a revision strategy, too, believing that simple pieces won’t come to life until they’re “spark fed” complexity with two more braids. And she uses braiding in teaching. She has students take three unrelated topics to construct an essay. Since undergraduates can struggle with one story, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I think the key is her instruction that the elements must “mean a lot” to them. Thematic connections will surprise and delight. Even so, such essays will tend to be segmented—three discrete chunks—and as a reader I prefer stories like Sellers’s memoir essay where one thread is a through-line that provides cohesion in a layered narrative. Her MIT adventure in the story’s present is related to her trials shown in the flashback narrative as an odd little girl with “criminally insane” parents and her poignant first experiences at college, including failing to recognize her date after she returns from the restroom.

Her Writers Digest essay was excerpted from her book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, which is about how to live the writer’s life, in the vein of Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. But in the middle of Sellers’s encouragement and her rules and her tough-love advice (she’s made all the mistakes herself—has faded away on books and has dud books under her bed), is that amazing chapter about her favored construction.

Braiding is just a term some now use—call it flashbacks, story lines, backstory—but words for the same technique have different implications and can inspire. Someone else’s nomenclature and her examples can help a writer see his true task.

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