Tag Archives: Patricia Hampl

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 reporter as artist

“What is uttered from the heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own.” —Goethe

“I was signed up in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, so I was a poet and they didn’t let you cross over. If you said you were a poet, then you had to write in those funny lines. You couldn’t switch. But when I started writing nonfiction, memoir, and the kind of prose that I’m better known for, I didn’t really feel that much difference at the heart of it. . . . The difference has to do with the way you want to go about writing something, rather than something intrinsic about the material.”—Patricia Hampl, interviewed in River Teeth

When I was studying journalism, I loved The Reporter as Artist: Readings on the New Journalism Controversy, a 1974 collection of essays edited by Ronald Weber. Lots of essays on narrative nonfiction, use of scenes, the article as art. Not that anyone in my journalism school had a clue how to teach us to become nonfiction artists. Now, I am certain, students taking nonfiction classes are being taught much better the techniques of narrative storytelling, at least in strong English departments. J-schools probably remain a mixed bag but many are now trying; undergrads in them are now writing “features” indistinguishable from what kids in English’s “creative nonfiction” sequences are doing. And some J schools are even calling their narrative nonfiction creative nonfiction. Things have changed.

In any case, I am not sure that Archibald MacLeish’s distinction in “Poetry and Journalism,” below, holds. Creative nonfiction and the web have invigorated and animated all forms of nonfiction by acknowledging how personal are even journalistic constructs:

What really distinguishes poetry from journalism, aside from the obvious distinctions of form—uses of words, patterns of words, sequences of words—is not a difference in kind but a difference in focus. Journalism is concerned with events, poetry with feelings. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world: poetry with the feel of the world. Journalism wishes to tell what has happened everywhere as though the same things had happened for every man. Poetry wishes to say what it is like to any many to be himself in the presence of a particular occurrence as though he alone had faced it.

He admits this is a generalization, that journalists like Elmer Davis and Ernie Pyle would “not have separated the feel of things from the look of them if they could,” and he acknowledges that some modern poets wrote about specific wars and the history of their time. He notes that William Butler Yeats nailed the modern world in “The Second Coming,” with famous lines like the “center cannot hold,” the “falcon cannot hear the falconer,” and of course, “The best lack all conviction while the worse/Are full of passionate intensity.”

CNF’s influence. This omission of feeling is not true at all for creative nonfiction’s personal essays, which seem to be greatly influencing print journalism—as has, let’s face it, television and, increasingly, amateur videos. And even memoir. But in MacLeish’s day the objective style was in ascendance, aiming to present an event “in the colorless air of intellectual detachment at the cost of its emotional significance,” as he put it. MacLeish blasted contemporary poetry, for its part, for a detachment from the world: “Poems so composed are like kites without strings. They cannot bear up against the carrying away of time because they have no attachment to a point in time.”

The sins of both forms help create an apathy that places humanity in great danger in the modern world, MacLeish argues. He felt this keenly in the teeth of the Cold War. But this “divorce between knowing and feeling” goes farther back, he acknowledges, at least to the case of the Germans who knew about the Holocaust but who seemingly failed to feel their knowledge.

Feeling the facts. Both information and the “feel of the facts” are crucial, he says, even as we seem less capable of taking the world’s dangers and disasters into our imaginations—we tune out the world, too much with us. How much truer that seems today, fifty-three years after MacLeish’s great essay! He saw peril for the human soul as well as for the fate of the world in this indifference. And yet, I think of the concerned response to the natural disaster in Japan, to the bloodshed in Libya, and to so many of the world’s sorrows.

I am not certain, though, that MacLeish’s essay is dated; in many ways it  still feels prescient. It is a warning about the professionalization of journalism. About whatever forces would separate journalism from feeling and therefore from literature and therefore from humanity. But he warned that even poetry “has lost its power in men’s minds”:

We have not discarded the art as Herbert Spencer thought we would when the machine had come to flower, but we have impaired the practice of the skill the art can give, the skill of feeling truly and so truly knowing. We know with the head now, by the facts, by abstractions. We seem unable to know as Shakespeare knew who made King Lear cry out to blinded Gloucester on the heath: “. . . you see how this world goes,” and Gloucester answers, “I see it feelingly.”

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Filed under emotion, journalism, poetry, teaching, education