Tag Archives: Mary Karr

Memoirist, skin thy own cat

Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either.

The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this and other early interviews before the book was finished that Rushdie, this erudite novelist, was very actively educating himself about memoir.

How could he not be? He’d probably paid some attention during his career to the memoir boom, but study is in order when you begin to write a book in a new genre. So study he did, into journalism and memoir. That is, into the poles of nonfiction. And one can watch the process of Rushdie’s self-education happening on YouTube. Some of his insights are surprising, maybe idiosyncratic, and others are rather scholarly.

In one interview he confesses, “I don’t actually understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.” That would be a shockingly untutored admission for anyone in the academic literary world—for anyone who’s been to writing conferences and workshops or read any of the stream of books on memoir that take pains, first, to set it apart from autobiography. Maybe Rushdie’s confusion is reflected in the length of Joseph Anton, a baby whale at 656 pages. More likely, he had a big story to tell, a big reputation, a big publisher, and a big market.

By the time of the Emory interview, Rushdie had done enough research, probably building on his existing knowledge as a literary man, to name with confidence the world’s first memoir—and not Augustine’s Confessions like you might suppose:

Early memoirs by St. Augustine, St. John, and St. Teresa were written as confessions to God, or about their relationship with God, not as what we’d consider memoirs. The Confessions of Rousseau [1782] is the first modern autobiography. He kind of chickened out by not publishing it in his lifetime. But there is an intent there [to tell the truth about his life in the world]. Nobody had ever understood that it was interesting to tell your own story.

What happened to literature with Rousseau’s memoir, Rushdie says, was personal “self awareness.” Novels made use of this newly discovered power:

The most famous novels of the eighteenth century pretended to be memoirs—Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. It was a marketing device of the time. And Dickens had a very biographical view of fiction. He liked to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t know and I don’t care what my characters do after the book ends. But he did care. And he told you about what happened to them—and their dogs.

In his study of the memoir Rushdie learned a dismal truth—maybe he relearned it since it would seem true of the novel as well: “Other people’s work doesn’t help really. You have to find your own solutions to the story you have to tell. It’s useful to see how other people skinned the cat, but you have to skin your own cat.”

At least, in Rushdie’s reckoning, the memoirist faces an easier task than the novelist, who must answer many more questions of presentation: “In the novel you have to answer a what question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a who question: Whose story am I telling? Then you have to answer a why question: Why am I telling this story? And finally you have to answer a how question: How do I tell this story? And the ‘how’ question is the most difficult of all.”

Memoirists only have the “how question,” he says. “So it’s a little easier. Three quarters . . . that’s already there.”

He credits Oprah Winfrey and the confessional culture she has created for memoir’s current boom, but links it also, rather surprisingly, to the New Journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s that borrowed back from the novel tools now associated with fiction, such as scene, dialogue, and a involved or intimate point of view. He also reveals that he’s studied the most popular recent literary memoirs:

What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived. The reader doesn’t experience them as living. In that sense it’s completely novelistic. If you look at the best examples of the memoir genre, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best of them are novelistic in that way. It derives from the earlier form we call New Journalism, where journalism decided to put on some of the clothes of the novel.

 

Writers like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer in his nonfiction, Hunter S. Thompson in his book on the Hell’s Angels, deliberately wrote those books novelistically, with all the techniques of the novel. And it created a new form, one element of which was participation. If George Plimpton was going to write about Mohammed Ali, he was going to get in the ring with Mohammed Ali; if he was going to write about the New York Yankees, he is going to get on the field. The journalist enacts the drama he is writing about. And out of that came the New Journalism, which is really extraordinary.

 

In the next generation, what happened with the writing of memoir was the use of the novelistic technique in the writing of autobiography. Of course there are problems of truth. For example, verbatim dialogue. It’s very difficult to believe someone writing about their childhood and what their mother said to their father, and it’s in inverted commas as direct speech. I don’t care how good people’s memories are, there’s a sense that a convention is being used: that to represent the conversations that dialogue is being partly if not completely made up. And there’s sort of not a way around that—you sort of have to do it. That’s how it is like a novel. You’re making it up in the service of truth if you’re doing it properly.

Rushdie spoke to how a memoirist enhances his credibility: “You have to be harsher on yourself than anyone else. It’s self-glorifying to begin with to say ‘I’m going to write 500 pages about me.’ You have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. You have to describe yourself more critically than you do other people.”

I mentioned to a fiction writer that Rushdie has chosen to tell his memoir with an unusual and interesting strategy, in the novelistic and distancing third person, writing about himself a la Norman Mailer in his nonfiction as “he,” and my acquaintance was amused: “That was probably a good move for someone with an ego so big.”

So one lives with the perception one has created. Indeed Rushdie seems to suffer from no lack of confidence. But I have to admire him for surviving mentally and emotionally, let alone physically, for a decade with a sentence of death-by-terrorist on his head. And now he’s revealed that decade in hiding—and apparently much of his life story—in a memoir. His choice might have been different in another time:

The market for fiction has dwindled. In terms of numbers of books being sold, nonfiction is king at this time. Not that it will always be that way. The way people want to see their world described changes. Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.

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Filed under craft, technique, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, scene, structure

There’s something about memoir

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, revision

Shirley Showalter, ubuntu & memoir

Sunrise at Melbourne Beach, Florida, January 2012

Become an observer of your own creative process. It will help you uncover where you “sing” and where your voice falls flat. When you lose track of time and are not thinking about yourself at all but rather about your purpose, your love for this world, your sheer amazement—that’s when you sing. The rest is just preparation. You might have to let it go and start over.—How to Write a Memoir by Shirley Hershey Showalter

My best writing teachers over the years haven’t been famous writers or even the most published in a particular cohort. The worst I ever had was the author of a celebrated memoir—she was vile, in part because she didn’t seem to respect her pupils, violating Emerson’s dictum that that’s the secret of education, and in part because she seemed actively to resent them.

Good teachers are generous, within reason, and they remember what it’s like to be afraid and confused along with being eager and hopeful. They know how beginners can struggle to push their stories through layers of craft that they haven’t yet mastered. Try teaching someone to use a computer who has never even booted up one and you’ll see how slowly and carefully you must go. A skill beyond that is seeing what each student needs instead of nuking everyone alike. In the end, depend on it—and let it be said—good teachers are good people, whereas someone who’s just a good writer might be dreadful in the flesh (a word of warning to MFA students out there).

So it’s thrilling to see that Shirley Hershey Showalter, a woman of warmth and good humor, has just published a free guide to memoir. Shirley grew up on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania and became an English professor and then the fourteenth president and first woman leader of Goshen College, in northern Indiana. Now retired, Shirley and her husband are serving as nannies to their grandson Owen in Brooklyn, New York.

And Shirley is smack in the middle of writing her memoir, Rosy Cheeks: A Mennonite Childhood. While her own lessons are fresh she’s making available, as a free pdf download from her web site, the booklet How to Write a Memoir: Seven Practices for Creating a Memoir that Sings. Shirley lists and explores seven key steps:

• Create a daily ritual asking for help, discipline, and guidance

• Read—eventually at least 100 memoirs

• Know why you want to write

• Write about the process as you draft your manuscript

• Create a timetable, starting with the end in mind

• Keep a notebook with you for capturing thoughts

• Optional: build your platform as a writer

I know her advice is wise because I stumbled painfully into each stage. The first step took me a couple of years to formalize—and didn’t really come together until I had read and reviewed Mary Karr’s great memoir Lit, which details the spiritual practices that have enabled her to write and which have, too, saved her life. (There’s a great Paris Review interview with Karr in which she explains her prayer life and spiritual practices in some detail.)

Along with emailing you How to Write a Memoir, Shirley will send weekly emails that feature writing prompts. In this new phase of her writing-teaching life, she has also revamped her blog, 100Memoirs, launched in 2009, and her inaugural post, “Ubuntu: A Philosophy of Memoir Writing,” explains her generosity. “Ubuntu” should be required reading for every memoirist—make that every writer—no, every American. To learn about the South African concept, a win-win philosophy of the individual blossoming within community, watch the short video embedded in Shirley’s post of Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining it. Ubuntu is a powerful ethical concept, but like the Dalai Lama, Tutu mostly just laughs. The medium is the message.

As Shirley says:

The words that inspire me most from this video seem at first blush to be antithetical to the idea of writing memoir: “There is no such thing as a solitary individual.” But when you add the rest of the Archbishop’s words, you see why memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand. It is a radical act: “I want you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be. I need you to be you so that I can be me.”

Ubuntu!

Next: An interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter.

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Filed under electronic publishing, memoir, MFA, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education, working method

Q&A: a memoirist’s decade of discovery

Nina Hamberg, author of Grip

Nina Hamberg, whose award-winning book Grip: A Memoir of Fierce Attractions I recently excerpted, answered questions about her motives and process. In the manner of Tobias Wolff’s great memoirs, Grip’s meaning is embedded in its story. A narrative of Hamberg’s fraught relationships with men who are afflicted with their own baggage, Grip is frank sexually without being overly graphic or salacious.

Why did you write Grip?

I’d never planned on writing memoir. I thought I had a novel in me, one based on the year I was ten and my mother left my father and took me with her to Florida. But when I sat down to write that story I found myself using the first person and telling what had happened. Without planning it, I’d gravitated to memoir. I took many writing classes, did a lot of reading, and spent the next two years writing about that period. I’d completed the first draft before I realized that the manuscript didn’t hold enough of a charge to continue. In a way, I wasn’t surprised, just aware of a kind of dread. I knew the story I’d been in training to write. I’d been hiding from it for years.

Ultimately, I wrote Grip because I had to. I’d kept so many parts of my life shuttered away from the people I cared about, as well as from myself. The assault. My family’s silence. My relationship with Stephen. My willingness to stay with a man who’d punch holes in the wall. If I was going to fully feel, I needed to face the past—both the things that I hadn’t chosen that had caused me pain as well as those I was ashamed that I had.

What did you learn in writing it?

 Many things. For one, I gained a deeper understanding of my parents. The process of making myself see and hear them as a writer, not a daughter, revealed their confusion and pain, showed them as people feeling their way. For another, I assembled pieces of my own life. The writer has a fragment of a memory, and it’s her job to place that piece into its context. To do that, I used a technique many memoirist use. I created a written timeline of the key events of my life year by year – in some cases, month by month. You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. Once you get the basics down, you layer it with information about key events in the lives of your parents or your lovers. Then you move outside that familial room and ask who was the President, what music was playing on the radio, when did the Iran hostages come home. You don’t end up using much of this, but for me the timeline proved invaluable in lifting memories out of a fog and grounding them in a firmer reality. As strange as this sounds, I hadn’t associated my father’s illness with my compulsion to marry Lee until I’d assembled the timeline.

You depicted relationships with minimal interpretation and reflection from present time, choosing to embed the meaning in the narrative itself (a la Tobias Wolff). Most academics teaching memoir writing advocate an alternative approach. They want the story grounded in “the now” with extensive reflection. How did you decide which approach to take?

I wrote the kind of story I like to read, one in which the reader is brought into the scene, introduced to the characters, and allowed to draw her own conclusions. I didn’t want to insert a strong musing voice that pulled the reader out of the moment or tied up the loose ends. That said, the perspective of the present informs almost every aspect of this story. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. It is the writer’s present self who distills down what is important, who is strong enough to face the little horror that was her former self, and solid enough to let all her characters come alive on the page unbound by her judgment.

Maybe the choice of styles gets down to our writing nature, and not really theory at all. I’ve got to tell you, the few musing glimmers that do appear in Grip were a lot of work. I felt I had to crack into the narrative flow very carefully to insert them.

Sex is always tricky to write about. How were you able to depict sex so frankly and so personally while keeping the description to a minimum?

First off, thank you—both for the question, because those sections were difficult to write, and for saying it seemed minimal. Phew. (I’m still dealing with the image of my brother reading Grip.)

A story about lovers has to have sex but my earliest versions didn’t. I remember reading an excerpt to my writing group from an early chapter about Stephen. I’d described him as an amazing lover or something like that. During the critique several women (the group was all women which made this experiment much easier) pointed out that if I was going to say the sex was great, I’d have to show how specifically. So I wrote a scene, a specific bedroom scene, which was very explicit. It got quite a reaction when I read it aloud, lots of whoops and laughs. The group admired the audacity. But it was too much. I backed down the detail, realizing the reader doesn’t need to be in the bedroom for long to understand the intensity.

So in answer to your question, my advice would be to overwrite it; be as detailed as you can. Then scale the scene back to its essence, leaving telling details that reveal something about you and your characters.

What memoirs inspired you in your writing?

 There have been so many amazing memoirs in recent years. Among my favorites are: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Drinking: A Love Story, The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Long Quiet Highway. I also really liked Fierce Attachments (in fact, I tried to pay homage to Vivian Gornick in the subtitle of my book), This Boy’s Life, The Kiss, After Long Silence, Falling Through the Earth and one of the first memoirs I ever read, A Country Year.

You’ll notice some contemporary classics are missing. I started reading The Liar’s Club early on but had to stop because Mary Kerr’s voice was just too strong. When I went to write about my childhood, my New York Jewish neighbors had suddenly developed a Texas twang.

 How long did you work on the book?

It took me a long time to write Grip—just over ten years. I didn’t really have the narrative thread until six years into the project. Once again, I overwrote. There are many chapters that were in early drafts, pieces I loved, that didn’t make the final cut once the theme became my relationships with men. A good part of the last year was spent editing, adding connective tissue, tightening up the writing. I hadn’t expected any part of this would take as long as it did, but looking back, there isn’t anything I would have done differently.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, working method, workshopping

Patricia Hampl: memoir’s excitement

The big fiction advice is “Show, don’t tell,” but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead “Show and Tell.” It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, “Why aren’t you writing fiction?” Too much tell and, “I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.”

The narration is the thing that lets you do the other. Sometimes the equation is off. Take a  memoirist like Mary Karr, who I love, but a lot people who would say what I just said wouldn’t like her. Not a lot of analysis. Very narrative. But the language is so great, so fantastic. The sheer writerly ability is so great that we don’t care. We feel that a revelation of her generation is happening in that narration, and as a result her experience becomes historical even though she doesn’t go on about history. So it isn’t like a formula: “Make sure to have 30 percent of this followed by 30 percent of that.”

Now, there are some people who would criticize Mary Karr, “How could she remember all of this. She’s making this up.” And this brings up one of the other big questions about memoir, which has to do with veracity, as well as ethical and moral issues related to the genre, which are insoluble to my mind. I don’t know that we can ever resolve these issues because if we are working with consciousness itself, not with fact, we’re dealing with not what “happened” but with what “has happened.” That is to say not what happened out there—we all agree that happened—but rather something happened and then “I” reflect on it and perceive it, and I don’t just think about it, I actually constellate it as an act, which in narrative terms means that I change it. Now, conscious invention is a whole other thing. We sometimes run into that as a problem, too. . . .

Part of the excitement of this form is that we are living in the middle of deciding what it’s going to be and learning not only how to write it but how to read it. How do we read this form? We may have made a big mistake when we put memoir into that big, baggy category of nonfiction. Once we did that, we put it right next to the newspaper, and we pretty much all know what we want the newspaper to be. If they say, “George Bush dropped dead,” we don’t want to find out tomorrow that he’s alive, right? We want to think he’s gone. If we put those same exact strictures on memoir, if we think the rules are exactly the same, we’re going to be disappointed.

From River Teeth, Spring 2004, Vol. 5, No. 2

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Filed under craft, technique, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED

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

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