Tag Archives: Jon Krakauer

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

Unrolling those narrative threads

“We construct a narrative for ourselves, and that’s the thread we follow from one day to the next. People who disintegrate as personalities are the ones who lose that thread.”—Paul Auster

A friend who is writing a complex book on evolution has been inspired by watching his artist daughter screen-printing layers of a picture successively in different colors, so that the image gradually emerges organically as a whole. He’s realized he needs similarly to line out his ideas slowly, giving readers the tools necessary to understand his theory’s major revelations deep into the book, as opposed to “describing each of the parts separately in detail, which just doesn’t work.”

Narrative literature must bring readers along, too, and for similar metabolic reasons. Multiple storylines are a commonplace in drama and comedy—watch almost any movie—and sometimes there are current-action threads while past threads move, in successive flashbacks, toward the present: How did that screwed-up guy or gal get there?

I’ve struggled with tugging along more than two storylines, however, in a book-length work. I can keep the main narrative unfolding across many chapters, maybe with a related subplot—a reappearing villain, say—but want to tie off other threads as they arise. Introduce them, wrap them up, get them over with. Snip! This is because I feel I’m already doing a lot in a chapter, and shoving one more thing into it seems to imperil its shapely arc. Sometimes, I think, a thread must be used in a discrete heap. But maybe then it’s not really a thread? And too much of such summary turns narrative essayistic, in the old-fashioned sense—bloodless.

I like narrative, event sequence leading to incidents that culminate in a big incident. But readers need to experience, with the main character or characters, all threads develop if they are going to feel the emotions the writer desires. This is how it happens in life too: ongoing issues and layers of backstory keep moving into the present. Rarely does something arise out of nothing. The car with bald tires wrecked at least partly because you were broke because of your troubled friend and because, two years ago, your dumb brother-in-law got you a deal on those tires, a deal, you learn, that really benefitted him . . .

Unroll all those threads over the course of a larger narrative and, wham, what a payoff the reader receives, when the car wrecks, for all that you’ve shown across 300 pages. It took me an embarrassingly long time to see that leaving out any element from the prior narrative, such as that mendacious brother-in-law, greatly dilutes the climax. His role cannot be revealed and wrapped up when the car wrecks without the reader feeling distanced or cheated.

Feeding the threads out inch by inch is both difficult to do and rich, conceptually and emotionally, for readers. To pull  all the strings, a writer must see clearly his main threads—surely defined as those connected directly to climaxes—and bring them along steadily. There’s much craft and artifice to this, unfolding while steadily and consciously withholding, and readers love writers for it.

An example in nonfiction is Jon Karakauer’s Into the Wild, as well as the movie Sean Penn made from it, which shrewdly dramatizes the book’s twin-story parallel structure. The ostensible main narrative is of Alex steadily dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. There’s a flashback thread, magically vivid in the movie, of his road adventures that took him ever-closer to the bus: he tests himself dangerously by kayaking through whitewater rapids and repeatedly turns his back on promising human relationships. A recurring thread set farther in the past explores his difficult early family life.

It fascinates me how much we get invested in the thread that gets Alex to the bus, when that setting constitutes the story’s present action and is the only thing “really” happening. But the bus is boring compared with Alex’s past adventures on the road, plus his disturbed childhood explains his final wilderness ordeal more than anything. There’s actually very little action in the “now” of Alaska compared with the long physical and emotional journey toward it. And those backstory threads within Into the Wild connect directly to the death of the smart, ascetic idealist who realizes, too late, that he must rejoin humankind for the meaning that he craves. All story elements support the same theme and form a whole that resonates.

Such thematic and event layering works beautifully but doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes work and conscious craft. Even then, there are no guarantees. A novelist once defined a novel as “a book with something wrong with it.” And in her 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too—the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.”

So, it appears, I’ve noticed my latest impossible task: driving more story threads through a larger narrative, so that they run along with the main story, without creating a worse problem than what I’ve already got. To fix this flaw I’ve got to pull apart a bowl of spaghetti—making a mess of what I so carefully built. The result may work better but will be a different book, one surely with its own unique blemish.

Yet, Saint Annie promises, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. If it were a baseball, you would hit it out of the park. It is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion; its wings beat slowly as a hawk’s.”

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Filed under audience, braids, threads, Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, structure, theme