Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

Stephens-Days are Gods

A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

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Filed under craft, technique, essay-classical, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Emerson meets ‘A Girl Named Zippy’

So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive, inert form, and astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean? Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and dogs, and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many another fact that once filled the whole sky, are gone already; friend and relative, profession and party, town and country, nation and world, must also soar and sing.

—“The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson*

So he says. Joe's Garage, Westerville, Ohio

“What do you think this means?” I asked my wife. “I’ll reread it.”

“You don’t have to reread it,” Kathy said, resolute at the steering wheel of our van. “I know what it means. It’s about how we move from childhood to adulthood and our world must enlarge.”

How typical of her, I thought. A former English teacher and lifelong educator, she always sees the positive and the applicable.

“I think it’s about loss,” I said.

Detente collapsed with her reply, an inside-joke but too preemptive for my sincere mood: “Of course you do.”

I think,” I pressed on, “that it’s about how we forget things that were once our whole world. They’re lost to us, if not as memories then as experiences. But they were never just ours. They’re still available, to others, out in the world. They’re timeless.”

So there. Was my take that dark after all?

Emerson’s quotation is used as the epigraph for a memoir I’m reading, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. Just before reading Emerson’s quote, I’d been telling Kathy that it pains me that I never experience a specific reading pleasure I had as a kid—and have forgotten really what it was.

I’m not talking about the childhood experience of losing oneself in a book. It was after that phase. I can remember being delighted by something authors did. Maybe it came when I saw how a writer was working out plot, or making a joke based on information previously given me.

I still appreciate that. But is the pleasure less keen because I’ve grown to expect it? Or because I now routinely absorb how narratives work? Or because it was something else, something now lost to me as an experience?

Beats me. But isn’t so much of spirituality about recapturing the ability to appreciate simple things? And do we enjoy some things more—maybe not playing with pebbles on the sidewalk, but what about a fine day in early spring?

What about a sweet old dog? I guess the experience would be somewhat different, if nothing else given the difference in size between a five-year-old and a fiftysomething: my terrier, a lapdog to me, would be huge to a toddler. So I can’t recapture his wonder, and he can’t yet have my quiet pleasure that comes partly from having known other dogs.

Maybe you can still see your lost joys in your kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews? Maybe you’re still trying to maneuver the kids into position to experience them?

Source of the epigraph

 “The American Scholar” was the title of an address Emerson gave in 1837 to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, which named its publication for the speech. It’s an intriguing source for an epigraph for any memoir, and especially for A Girl Named Zippy.

Interestingly to me, when I turned just now to the Reading Guide at the back of Zippy one of the questions implies that Emerson’s meaning relates to the embellishment of memory. I don’t get that at all. But maybe Kimmel, or someone for Broadway Books, is pointing out that Zippy is a work of humor as much as of memoir, and therefore its story is somewhat embroidered? To me, Zippy‘s exaggerations are as obvious as they are hilarious. It is funny, dark, and true.

At first I feared the memoir would be too cute, and worse, sentimental. Then I hit the humor and was laughing out loud and trying to read it to Kathy. Then I worried that there was no narrative drive, but hit the dark notes and undertones. Zippy is quietly dark, because we see what she can’t quite make sense of: her father’s gambling addiction, her mother’s depression, her brother’s anger.

But it is mostly funny or at least amusing. The dark notes will please some, like me, and be too much for others. As I said, they’re what kept me reading. I gave this book four stars and not five on Goodreads, however, because the darkness notwithstanding, Zippy has little plot other than she’s getting slowly older in the course of the story. So, for me, it is not quite dramatic enough. And without some type of unfolding drama it can drag a wee bit.

*You can read the full text of Emerson’s speech here at Project Gutenberg.

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Filed under humor, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene

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