Tag Archives: Sven Birkerts

Emily Rapp’s satisfying memoir

Her tale of physical disability depicts an inner transformation.

Poster Child: A Memoir by Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 226 pp.

This semester my freshman honors students and I have read six memoirs and Sven Birkerts’s The Art of Time in Memoir (reviewed) in my themed composition class, “Tales of Dangerous Youth.” As with novels, coming of age stories are common in memoir. It has pleased me to see students who hadn’t read a memoir, or who had read one bad one, come to admire the genre.

By far the students’ favorite memoir has been Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, followed by Darin Strauss’s Half a Life (reviewed), followed by Gregory Orr’s The Blessing (reviewed). We read them in that order, too, followed by Veronica Chambers’s Mama’s Girl, Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, and now we’re into Kevin Sessum’s Mississippi Sissy.

I respect The Glass Castle for its craft. Though I’ve taught it to two classes in a row and am weary of rereading it, this tale of epic parental dysfunction rivets students and is a thematic and symbolic cornucopia for their analyses. Half a Life and The Blessing are two of my all-time favorite memoirs—deep and sad, reflective and bravely hopeful—and fast reads, too, which make them useful in a required reading lineup. The semester’s surprise for me was Poster Child, which I’d never read and which I’d expected to be a straightforward tale of a girl’s struggle with her birth defect.

Emily Rapp was born in 1974 with her left leg too short, from a rare condition that caused her femur to develop abnormally. She learned to walk with a brace, and before her fourth birthday doctors amputated her foot, the first of dozens of operations that left her with a stump just above knee height. Born to highly supportive parents, a Lutheran minister and a nurse, Rapp attacked life, buoyed by their optimism and emotional support. As she grew she wore a series of crude (by today’s standards) prostheses. She swam and skied and, at age six, became a March of Dimes poster child.

She also became a little monster, as Rapp explains:

            The feeling that I was a very real burden who was never made to feel like one or treated as such did not make me a sweeter child; rather, it made me a quick-tempered terror. The more attention I received as the poster child, the more attention I expected and demanded from everyone else and, in particular, from my family. Mom and Dad were afraid to say no to me. I sensed this and pulled out all the stops. The older I got the worse it became. I was an expert at the silent treatment game. Door slamming and screaming fits were simply commonplace. I was sweet in my appearance as the poster child, of course, and I learned always to be good and nice and accommodating in public, but my anger flared at the slightest provocation . . . I claimed to hate everything and everybody, but more than anything else, I began to hate myself.

Though she was spoiled rotten, one can see her parents’ dilemma in coping with her and her disability. Her childhood struggle sowed guilt, shame, and anger that became Rapp’s alone to bear. What makes Poster Child rare and valuable is its tracing of how she painfully changed, casting off, in her attempt to be fully human, the mask of perfection she’d worn over her fear and grief.

You might think that tales of such inner transformation are commonplace in memoirs, but you’d be wrong. Stories of overcoming hardships, yes, but not examinations of how defenses adopted in such struggles are rooted out. Far more than a story of a girl’s physical disability, Poster Child dares to go inward. Of course this approach requires the perspective of the memoir genre’s vaunted “distanced narrator,” the writer at her desk now, musing on meaning, but this technique doesn’t dictate the nature or quality of a writer’s reflection. What makes Rapp’s story relatable, as my students say, is the fact that most people can grasp having to come to terms with their childhood selves. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, the child is father of the adult.

Unfortunately Rapp’s story has a tragic coda, now playing out. Her son, Ronan, was born with the genetic disease Tay-Sachs. While pregnant, Rapp was tested for Tay-Sachs and other genetic problems, but apparently a mutation in Ronan’s version allowed the disease to escape detection. Tay-Sachs is one of the cruelest diseases I’ve heard of: born normal, babies regress into a vegetative state, losing all their senses, before becoming paralyzed and dying by three years old. Rapp has written that she expects Ronan to die this year.

Her memoir about parenting him, The Still Point of the Turning World, is to be published by Penguin in March 2013. “This is a love story,” she writes in a column for The New York Times, “and like all great love stories, it is a story of loss.”

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Review: ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts. Graywolf. 194 pages

What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir? The question isn’t as dumb as it may appear. A novel can be autobiographical, drawn completely from life remembered; a memoir is of course made of memory shaped and dramatized. Both forms are completely subjective, that’s their point, and draw upon memory, which is by nature imaginative.

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts posits that memoir is defined and distinguished by its dual perspective: the writer now looking back, trying to understand a past version of herself or himself. The glory of the genre, Birkerts says, is in the writer’s search for patterns and connections; in using the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

This manipulation of the double vantage point is the memoirist’s single most powerful and adaptable technique, allowing for a complex temporal access. The writer deploys the time frame as needed—sparingly, as we will see in certain works—in order to achieve greater immersion in a particular period (generally the more distant past); or else, in some cases, with more regular alternation. The purpose decides the process. To stay in one vantage point is to foreground the fictional illusionism; to play the hindsight perspective against it is to undercut the illusionism by emphasizing the revision of perspectives and the incorporation of relativism. The later counteracts the coma-inducing logic of, “If I just tell what happened . . .” and promotes the dramatizing of the process of realization, which is the real point.

So Birkerts focuses on reflection, on how different writers successfully assemble “the puzzle of what happened in the light of subsequent realization.” Mostly he picks work in which this is very subtle; in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Annie John—which he chooses to read as a memoir—there’s no overt musing but he argues that the book is crafted so that emblematic situations “carry reflective weight.”

The Art of Time in Memoir addresses types of memoirs, including: lyrical (evocations of a paradise lost, usually in childhood); coming-of-age sagas; tales of fathers and sons (invariably by sons coping with distant, damaged, or absent fathers); books by daughters about mothers (usually overly dominating ones); and accounts of trauma. He discusses two or three books in depth in each category.

I put down The Art of Time in Memoir twice to read acclaimed memoirs it discusses. Richard Hoffman’s 1995 Half the House is about the death of his two brothers from muscular dystrophy, his molestation by a coach, and his father’s complicit silence. Hoffman, a poet, tells a distressing story that achieves an equally compelling second act when he confronts, as a suffering adult, his father, who is by then ailing and widowed. Maureen Howard’s 1978 Facts of Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle award, is about her Irish Catholic parents and milieu. I found Howard’s view of her parents horribly depressing—they are just so sad, in her skillful rendering—but her nontraditional approach was interesting, and I’m now reading with enjoyment her portrait of Audubon’s lonely wife in her novel Big as Life.

I also enjoyed Birkerts’s discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and dominated by her stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. At the start, Birkerts notes, Woolf asserts memoir’s dual imperative with her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

He admires how Woolf deploys her earliest memory, of her mother’s dress, and how she stages it, acknowledging that the event probably occurred in London but admitting her desire to have it happen at the beach house she would immortalize in To the Lighthouse. (I think she’s also acknowledging the way memory conflates and at the same time winning the reader’s trust: how easy it would have been to fictionalize there, but she chooses to engage the reader in a more complex and collaborative way.) Birkerts:

We note, too, Woolf’s archly reflective aside—“it is more convenient artistically to suppose that we were going to St. Ives, for that will lead to my other memory”—which reminds us, lest we ever forget, that a memoir is, whatever its pretenses to the contrary, a narrative conceit; it creates a structure that is the life shaped and disciplined to serve the pattern, the hindsight recognition that is deemed to be the larger, more important truth. Woolf is, in those phrases, asserting her artistic license, even as she is en route to netting all of those early perceptions in their concrete . .  . particularity.

The Art of Time in Memoir is a sophisticated explication of a genre that is itself an art form. Birkerts shows that good memoirs, far from being defined by the easy charges of navel gazing or score settling, are serious devotions to understanding and to finding meaning. Through memoir’s “careful manipulation of vantage point,” Birkerts writes, “it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

(For fiction writers there’s a companion book in the Graywolf Press “Art of” series, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes, by Joan Silber.)

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A little more Dillard

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.

That’s from Annie Dillard’s 1989 New York Times essay “Write Till You Drop,” quarried from her book The Writing Life.

Yet she 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.

On her website, Dillard dismisses The Writing Life, published in 1988 and reviewed here, calling it “an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished” in 1998. On her “Uncollected Essays” webpage she takes cracks at two of her other pieces on writing. Of the sublime “To Fashion a Text,” published in William Zinssers’ Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, she says: “This is emphatically not interesting; I renounce it.” Of her “Advice for Young Writers,” which appeared in Image, she says: “Do not read this crap.”

I guess Annie feels that giving writing advice makes her look smug or preachy. It doesn’t. But her comments crack me up. Yet this begs the question: Why would Dillard disdain work that most other writers would be proud of? First, it’s published; second, it’s smart; third, it’s helpful, inspiring.

Recently I stumbled across an analysis of her in Sven Birkerts’ superb The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again that applies. Discussing her memoir An American Childhood, Birkerts calls her fundamentally a “philosopher of being” who is “grounded in a metaphysical astonishment at the fact of existence.”

I agree. So if that’s her orientation, and with existence her primary subject—thus illuminating why some love her and others are left cold by her astringent or gnomic passages—then her writing about writing that makes her comfortable is in Living by Fiction, not in The Writing Life, which contains seemingly personal advice that makes her queasy. Her real interest is in the fact and nature of writing. In writing as a tool of exploration, as a phenomenon, as an artifact of consciousness.

But a simulacrum of advice clings to her insights about what she’s noticed in writing books. How could it not? So she got stuck with what appears to be a self-help book to others and what looks like a smarmy mess to her. Read her quote at the top of this post. Yep. Right again, Annie.

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.2

John D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain portrays Congress deciding to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a skeevy Las Vegas hotel. In an otherwise rave review last February in The New York Times Book Review, Charles Bock took D’Agata to task for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). D’Agata is a gifted writer but what he did there does seem, well, weird. Using the actual date surely wouldn’t have undercut his emotionally associating it with another event.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s choice:

In pursuing his moral questions, he plays fast and loose with a verifiable historical date, one involving a kid’s suicide. He does this just for the sake of a tight narrative hook. To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites — a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

Bock is the author of an acclaimed novel, but he’s as offended as some fuddy-duddy journalist defending the franchise against this openly admitted instance of creative license in nonfiction. Many folks are policing the nonfiction genre. There’s no telling who’s going to shout out a rule for practitioners. But does memoir differ from literary journalism like D’Agata’s? What of that memoirist who remembers every facial expression and each slant of light from twenty years before?

I think she’s using both memory and imagination in trying to convey an emotion-laden fragment of personal, otherwise private, and completely subjective experience. For us to feel it, we must share it. And to experience that moment, resonant within a larger, lost world, we must trust and rely upon the writer’s imagination as much as we believe in her core memory. Otherwise, she can only summarize, not convey. But the story must be true, and with as many telling particulars as can be summoned.

Sophisticated readers understand that much fiction is drawn closely from experience, and perhaps we’re coming to understand that successful memoirs contain some fiction—not falsehoods or gross distortions, but the writer’s attempt to feel her way back into the past and to take us with her. I agree with David Shields in Reality Hunger that memoir is literature, not a public record—not reportage. Though it is nonfiction, it’s very different from coverage of a city council meeting or even from a literary journalism participatory account or immersion profile.

Of course, the chief problem of writing about this issue is that it sounds, inescapably, like you are rationalizing deceit. As if you’re approving of those who make up or wildly exaggerate their basic narratives, or that you do it yourself. I imagine this is what keeps more writers from addressing the subtleties of this aspect of memoir. However, in his impressive Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, Sven Birkerts tackles the subject of “what are the limits of invention in memoir,” and he defends Vivian Gornick, who several years ago ignited a flap when she admitted to a roomful of journalists that some incidents in her memoir Fierce Attachments were “composite recreations,” as Birkerts terms it.

He writes:

Common sense tells us that not all so-called nonfiction can be—or needs to be—accountable to the same standards of strictness. Documentary reportage, kin to journalism in its treatment of character and circumstance, is pledged to absolute factual veracity, though I doubt any work in the genre is completely free of grace notes and bits of embroidery. But memoir, a genre that not only depends upon memory, but has the relation of past to present itself as an implicit part of its subject matter, is different. So much of the substance of memoir is not what exactly happened? but, rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life? And from this angle, Gornick’s conflations make sense; for she uses them to better, more truthfully (if not more accurately) communicate the essential nature of what she is after. What she is doing—heightening, conferring definition—is in some ways not so different from what writers like Nabokov and Woolf are doing when the zoom in on minute particulars to the exclusion of the more customary narrative proportions. The truth is in the specific psychic residue, not in the faithful mapping of episodes to external events.

 

I offer this knowing that there will be many people who disagree. But it seems to me that memoir, unlike reportage, serves the spirit of the past, not the letter. Indeed, no one who reads memoir believes—how could they?—that exchanges happened exactly as set down, or that key events have not been inflected to achieve the necessary effect. The question is only how much departure is tolerable, and at what point does the modified recollection turn into fiction?

The grayness of his position—regarding honesty as a private, individual burden—won’t satisfy rule-makers. My provisional stance is that memoir must be honest not in the micro-ethics way reportage is, because of superficial facts (“true” even if they create the wrong impression), but in the macro-ethics sense of writing, in which the challenge is for the writing to be true in the deepest and widest sense and for the writer to become ever more human through its practice. Memoir reflects the reality that our memories are sifted and tumbled and recreated, rather than being fixed in an unchanging inner transcript. The memoirist melds discovered inner truths and feelings with fragments of memory into art that conveys lived reality. A simple statement at the front of a memoir I read recently pretty much gets it: “This is a true story. Some names and details have been changed.”

Those details! Since the writer is never the same person who experienced those details in the first place, isn’t his selection itself a form of fiction? And the person being portrayed perhaps wasn’t consciously aware at the time of those details, or he was focused on others, or saw them gradually, in memory. So what is true? In an interview about The Men in My Country, her spare, elegiac memoir about her affairs with three men during the time she spent teaching school in Japan, former journalist Marilyn Abildskov argues for the word “authenticity” for memoir rather than “truth.”

I get frustrated with the whole debate about accuracy and whether or not the memoirist can make something up because I don’t think it’s the right question or the most interesting question or the most useful question. When you write, you’re making something up. It’s that simple.  You’re putting words onto the page; creating something you hope seems whole.  You’re using your imagination.  Even if you’re writing from memory—maybe especially—you’re using your imagination. You’re trying to create this thing that’s alive. And you’re doing what a novelist does only instead of asking that age-old question that prompts fiction—What if? —you’re turning to your past, asking:  “What was that?  Who were those people?”  So maybe literary memoirs should be called memory-novels.

In this interview, with Jennie Durrant for Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Abildskov said she consulted her notebooks, which were sometimes useful, and added about memory:

There are things that you just don’t forget.  These things are imprinted onto you.  And the job writing-wise becomes making meaning out of that that someone else will understand. That’s why I don’t think the issue of accuracy is as important as authenticity. And I don’t know how else to say it except that there is something incredibly authentic about the personal essays and memoirs that have meant the most to me, some trueness of voice . . .

 

I remember a friend reading the manuscript in an early form and saying there was way too much logistical information about getting from A to B. Which I think comes from a desire to be accurate. And then what I had to do was shed that desire and go deeper, find a more purposeful interiority, the voice of vulnerability, and rely on that, hope that the emotional truth could rise from that. But you’re figuring all that out along the way. You, too, as a writer, have to go from A to B, boring as that may sound, and make all these mistakes, the ones everyone makes, in order to figure out the more important stuff. . . . And there’s something to be said for the imagination of the memory. We all embroider, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? The minute we tell a story, we’re going to add some details, because that’s the nature of storytelling: it’s the nature of reinventing.

I think I’m going to steal her word, authenticity, so rich and nuanced compared with the reductive “truth” or the slippery “honesty.”

(Abildskov’s complete interview with Durrant is here on the Mary site.)

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