Tag Archives: John Irving

Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.—Annie Proulx

I’ve been skimming John Irving’s newest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. I started out reading, but it asked more of me than I can give right now. With classes looming, immersed in my own rewriting struggle, I’m too jangly, I guess, to settle into a thick old-fashioned plotted novel with lots of big fat sentences. So when I got a notice the other day from my library that a memoir I’d requested was in, I put Irving aside yet again.

I’d forgotten about the memoir, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, about her bond with the late memoirist Caroline Knapp. The book, a svelte 190 pages, sucked me right in with the beauty of its sentences and the immediacy of its story. I devoured it in two days, and I’ll reread it. When it opens, Caldwell is dealing with Knapp’s death, and slowly a narrative storyline emerges amidst reflection as Caldwell goes back, showing their friendship ignite—over shared passions for dogs, rowing, and swimming—and moves through the years toward Knapp’s untimely death from lung cancer. The poignancy of this loss, and what makes it harrowing for Caldwell, is that this friendship between two single, gifted writers, both recovered alcoholics, was uncommonly deep. They were true soul mates, closer than many lovers.

The memoir’s opening page, an unlabeled prologue, showcases its strong, quiet voice, elegant syntax, and interesting use of metaphor:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years. It was a winter afternoon and the place was empty—there was a bend in the road, with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work. “What am I supposed to do here?” I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. “Am I just supposed to keep going?” My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was on the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is so rich with metaphors, and they’re so pleasing and surprising. Aren’t we always seeking apt comparisons? I tell my students that we reflexively pursue symbols to define people and situations—and we must, since words themselves are metaphors. Your ex was just like those cheap cracked boots he left in your closet, wasn’t he? Admit it: she was that mess she left in your bathroom. And Caldwell’s perfect title, what Caroline Knapp used to say to prolong their outings, epitomized their friendship.

When I was a young writer, I’d likely have attributed Gail Caldwell’s frequent metaphoric phrases to sheer genius, and probably some writers do think metaphorically more easily. But now I’m more inclined to see metaphors also as just another aspect of craft, even though they can seem magical. Metaphor “is the language of the angels,” says author and metaphor maven Silvia Hartmann, using a metaphor for a metaphor. “Religion, society, thought, science are all based on metaphor and to be able to speak the language of the angels allows a human being to shape reality for themselves, and for others.”

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Filed under memoir, metaphor, symbolism, syntax

The importance of momentum . . .

What John Irving told an interviewer at Boston University about the most important quality in novels surely applies to memoirs too.

If you’re going to write novels, you need to establish momentum. The longer the novel, the more that momentum is essential. A novel must be more compelling, more urgent, to the reader on page 400 than it was on page 40. Two elements give you this necessary momentum. You must be able to develop characters; the characters must grow, and the reader must be growingly involved in what’s going to happen to these characters. You have to make the reader care about your characters. The second element is connected to the characters; the story must hold the reader’s attention—first, by inviting the reader to anticipate what’s going to happen; later, by having kept something a secret from the reader. You must allow a reader to guess what’s going to happen, but the reader has to be a little wrong. Note that I’ve said “going to happen” three times in this paragraph. That is where the momentum lies: always ahead of where the reader is in the book.

Of course, Irving said he isn’t interested in memoirs:

Most memoirs don’t interest me; I have no interest in writing one. When I do use things that have happened to me in my fiction (and not much of interest has happened to me), I always change it; I’m a fiction writer—I can improve on almost any so-called “true” story; sometimes making a story better in fiction means making it far worse.

 

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Filed under fiction, memoir, NOTED

John Irving on writing & America

Novelist John Irving holds forth on Big Think on an array of writing issues in short videos excerpted from a long interview. He discusses his working habits—eight to nine hours a day writing in longhand in lined notebooks, seven days a week—and the deep rifts in America that trouble him. He talks about using post-it notes, the long process of revision, achieving syntactical unity throughout a long work, and the glory of the long, lavishly detailed, plotted, visual nineteenth-century novels of Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Hawthorne. The tidbits are worth a listen.

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Filed under craft, technique, fiction, NOTED, revision, syntax, working method