Tag Archives: Tobias Wolff

The leverage of persona in memoir

Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard

A page turner . . .

Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.

Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.

I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.

Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:

At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.

”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.

A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:

From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.

This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”

Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’

A savory classic . . .

Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.

But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.

A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.

Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.

From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.

. . .

Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.

Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:

It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.

I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.

There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.

Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood

A droll appeal to the intellect . . .

As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi.  His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.

That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.

She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:

I was just waking up then [at age ten], just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.

. . .

Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along: is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years, I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.

Is this sad?

Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.

Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:

They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.

. . .

But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.

And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.

An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.

Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.

But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:

And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.

A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.

To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.

Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.

As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.

He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.

A note to teachers about An American Childhood

While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.

Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW, scene, teaching, education

The 100 best nonfiction books?

The Modern Library on its website lists the100 best” English-language books in fiction and nonfiction. Alongside each are the best according to an online poll—and the readers’ choices consist of much trash: the top three slots of each list, fiction and nonfiction, are filled by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard.

Modern Library’s own considered nonfiction list is fascinating because it’s wildly diverse, reflecting the genre’s diversity, no doubt. It mixes histories and works of philosophy that have had social or intellectual impact with essays and memoirs. Virginia Woolf’s pioneering feminist essay A Room of One’s Own is ranked 4th,, while Vladimir Nabokov’s classic literary memoir Speak, Memory—panned and lauded on this very blog—is 8th and Richard Wright’s heartfelt memoir  Black Boy is 13th. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, the title essay of which I’ve previously declared America’s greatest, ranks 19th,  while Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ranks a solid 20th.

The Library’s number one greatest nonfiction book ever published in English is officially an autobiography, memoir’s staid precursor, The Education of Henry Adams. I read it so many years ago I can’t remember it, but do recall that it was recommended to me then because of its introspective impulse, which today we’d call memoiristic—a meditation on Henry Adams’s intellectual life—rather than being the usual dry recitation of a politician’s public deeds.

 

It helps to be named Woolf, Wolfe, or Wolff

Seeing Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in 52nd place confirmed my recent hunch that it would be a great book to teach—it’s a monument to immersion reporting and to narrative nonfiction storytelling. Wolfe penetrated the world of military test pilots and rocketed away with their immortal tough-guy phrase—“the right stuff”—as an overarching metaphor. He showed how those steely fighter jocks bent the U.S. space program to their will, wresting a degree of flight control from pocket-protected missile scientists and coffee-breathed NASA bureaucrats.

I was gratified that one of my favorite memoirs, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, made the list (86th) and nodded when I saw Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 96th. Without apparent irony, in 97th place is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, an expose of the pitfalls of the kind of empathetic immersion with criminals that Capote practiced. Malcolm generalizes the issue of some crime writers’ duplicity toward killers to all journalists—the way they act friendly and then sell sources out.

Having recently reread and written here about the excesses of The Journalist and the Murderer, I wonder what its placement says about the status of journalism. Even as narrative nonfiction dominates publishing and bookselling, people don’t fully trust it, or at least are wary of what they sense are inherent flaws. Maybe that’s simply wise—most people call any narrative book a novel, after all.

But I can think of several books, equally slim in size, that are better than Malcolm’s narrow screed. Offhand, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, reviewed here, is far larger in its ambition, its achievement, and its relevance for civilians.

 

The Modern Library’s top 100 nonfiction list . . .

1. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by Henry Adams

2. THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by William James

3. UP FROM SLAVERY by Booker T. Washington

4. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf

5. SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson

6. SELECTED ESSAYS, 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot

7. THE DOUBLE HELIX by James D. Watson

8. SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

9. THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE by H. L. Mencken

10. THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY by John Maynard Keynes

11. THE LIVES OF A CELL by Lewis Thomas

12. THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY by Frederick Jackson Turner

13. BLACK BOY by Richard Wright

14. ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL by E. M. Forster

15. THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote

16. THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman

17. THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND by Isaiah Berlin

18. THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN by Reinhold Niebuhr

19. NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

20. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein

21. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk and E. B. White

22. AN AMERICAN DILEMMA by Gunnar Myrdal

23. PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell

24. THE MISMEASURE OF MAN by Stephen Jay Gould

25. THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP by Meyer Howard Abrams

26. THE ART OF THE SOLUBLE by Peter B. Medawar

27. THE ANTS by Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

28. A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls

29. ART AND ILLUSION by Ernest H. Gombrich

30. THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS by E. P. Thompson

31. THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois

32. PRINCIPIA ETHICA by G. E. Moore

33. PHILOSOPHY AND CIVILIZATION by John Dewey

34. ON GROWTH AND FORM by D’Arcy Thompson

35. IDEAS AND OPINIONS by Albert Einstein

36. THE AGE OF JACKSON, Arthur Schlesinger by Jr.

37. THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB by Richard Rhodes

38. BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON by Rebecca West

39. AUTOBIOGRAPHIES by W. B. Yeats

40. SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA by Joseph Needham

41. GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves

42. HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

43. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN by Mark Twain

44. CHILDREN OF CRISIS by Robert Coles

45. A STUDY OF HISTORY by Arnold J. Toynbee

46. THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY by John Kenneth Galbraith

47. PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Dean Acheson

48. THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough

49. PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson

50. SAMUEL JOHNSON by Walter Jackson Bate

51. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

52. THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

53. EMINENT VICTORIANS by Lytton Strachey

54. WORKING by Studs Terkel

55. DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron

56. THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION by Lionel Trilling

57. THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Winston Churchill

58. OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen

59. JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME by Dumas Malone

60. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN by William Carlos Williams

61. CADILLAC DESERT by Marc Reisner

62. THE HOUSE OF MORGAN by Ron Chernow

63. THE SWEET SCIENCE by A. J. Liebling

64. THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl Popper

65. THE ART OF MEMORY by Frances A. Yates

66. RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM by R. H. Tawney

67. A PREFACE TO MORALS by Walter Lippmann

68. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE by Jonathan D. Spence

69. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn

70. THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW by C. Vann Woodward

71. THE RISE OF THE WEST by William H. McNeill

72. THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels

73. JAMES JOYCE by Richard Ellmann

74. FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Cecil Woodham-Smith

75. THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY by Paul Fussell

76. THE CITY IN HISTORY by Lewis Mumford

77. BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James M. McPherson

78. WHY WE CAN’T WAIT by Martin Luther King by Jr.

79. THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT by Edmund Morris

80. STUDIES IN ICONOLOGY by Erwin Panofsky

81. THE FACE OF BATTLE by John Keegan

82. THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND by George Dangerfield

83. VERMEER by Lawrence Gowing

84. A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan

85. WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham

86. THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

87. A MATHEMATICIAN’S APOLOGY by G. H. Hardy

88. SIX EASY PIECES by Richard P. Feynman

89. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

90. THE GOLDEN BOUGH by James George Frazer

91. SHADOW AND ACT by Ralph Ellison

92. THE POWER BROKER by Robert A. Caro

93. THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION by Richard Hofstadter

94. THE CONTOURS OF AMERICAN HISTORY by William Appleman Williams

95. THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE by Herbert Croly

96. IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

97. THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm

98. THE TAMING OF CHANCE by Ian Hacking

99. OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS by Anne Lamott

100. MELBOURNE by Lord David Cecil

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, teaching, education

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

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

Q&A: Gregory Orr on ‘The Blessing’

Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones.—Booklist

The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr. Council Oak, 209 pages.

Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. There are tons of good memoirs and more than a few great ones, but this one did it for me. It joins a select handful that thrilled me to my toes: Lee Martin’s From Our House, Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

In its subject, The Blessing is reminiscent of Darin Strauss’s fine memoir Half a Life—both authors caused a death when they were young—but The Blessing necessarily covers much more ground, involving as it does Orr’s family, especially his parents, on an extensive level. When Orr was twelve, he shot to death his eight-year-old brother Peter in a hunting accident. This horrific event shattered Orr; it may have shattered his parents, but it is hard for Orr to say, since they’d already lost another son, in a preventable household accident, and were troubled separately and together. They presumably also harbored their own guilt for both deaths.

Orr’s father, a charismatic and careless rural doctor, is a drinker, drug addict, and philanderer. He may be haunted by a tragedy that happened in his own childhood. In the wake of the family’s second boyhood death, if any comforting of Gregory Orr is to be done, it will have to come from Orr’s mother—but she fails to do so. He’s abandoned to intolerable and almost unbearable guilt and shame. Soon his father moves his family to Haiti, where they work with the poor, and there another tragedy befalls them. It’s yet another death that might have been prevented.

For all this, The Blessing isn’t accusatory, nor is it close to being ascore-settling expose. Late in the book, a fascinating stage opens when the teenage Orr, hoping to atone by serving penance, drives to Mississippi to help black Americans. It’s 1965, the year after the famous Freedom Summer, and overt law enforcement brutality has abated. Yet what happens to Orr, the humiliation and violence he suffers at the hands of state troopers and in a small-town jail, is hateful and shocking. And, in its coldly planned nature, evil. It all happens calculatedly behind the scenes after he’s arrested, and his account is the most moving and compelling I’ve read from the Civil Rights struggle.

The prose in The Blessing is spare without ever being jarring, evocative without being flowery. The book is concise, and broken into forty-five very short chapters, yet feels complete. Its structure appears straightforwardly chronological, with two exceptions, the second striking. After the shooting, discussed from the opening and which is shown occurring in the third chapter, the story flashes back to fill in family details. Then it moves forward to the eve of Orr’s departure for the South—but suddenly it flashes forward to show his nearly suicidal emotional state upon his return, before flashing back to show what happened. The Blessing concludes with Orr moving toward the art that might save him.

He became an esteemed poet, the author of some ten collections and also books of critical essays, the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships. He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded its MFA program in writing. I asked Orr some questions, below, followed by his answers.

Why did you write The Blessing?

I think I’m going to be answering this question later on. My wife had encouraged me to write it for many, many years. But I lacked the courage and only did so when I felt I needed to for my own survival. This had to do with my father’s illness around 1995. At the time of his diagnosis, he was told he wouldn’t live six months, though in fact he lived another five years in relative comfort. But our lives, my father’s and mine, were oddly entwined. We were opposite personality types—he a social extravert who loathed self-reflection (“navel-gazing” as he referred to it) and myself a brooder and shy introvert. I had my own traumas—my responsibility for a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. But my father, otherwise so unlike me, had also, when he was about twelve, killed his best friend in an accident with a rifle. A bizarre and unnerving repetition across generations, further complicated by the (insoluble) question of why I was raised with guns in my childhood house. A tragedy, a mystery, a dark place in human brains or hearts. Who knows? But there we were—my father and I with the same burden or a similar one. I’d always hoped we could speak of this mystery and enter a mutual forgiveness pact of some sort, but my father wasn’t able to talk of his story and didn’t want me to talk of mine. Other than that, I think we loved each other a good deal—but that was a deep and unspeakable deadlock between us much of my life. When I knew he was dying and still wouldn’t speak of it, I got worried. I felt a need to untangle this thing between us before he died, because I didn’t want that guilt to weigh even heavier on me. I felt it I couldn’t talk it through with him, I needed to write it out and sort it out that way. And so, the book began.

When that need to communicate directly is balked in the world, as it so often is for so many reasons, then many of us turn to writing in order to relieve that need and also to understand ourselves and our world. How many memoirs must get written that way.

How did you decide on the book’s length and structure?

First, you’d need to know that I wrote it three times, so it varied as to what the length and structure would be. On the other hand, I think I knew pretty early on where the book would end. Shortly after I came back from working for the Civil Rights movement in the South and just before I returned to my sophomore year of college, my old high school librarian took me to visit the rural house and sculpture field of the recently-dead sculptor David Smith. The experience of those sculptures in that setting was pivotal for my sense of my life—until then I’d been drawn to political activism as well as writing, but after the trauma of my experiences in Mississippi and Alabama and the strangely moving positive experience of David Smith’s field, I knew that writing was going to be my main path. I wanted to end there. I also sensed that I needed/wanted to start with my brother’s death, in another field, when I was twelve and killed him in a hunting accident. I was very daunted by the idea of writing narrative, and so the idea of “framing” or structuring a book around two fields—a field of death and a field of the life of art (which moves beyond individual death)—that appealed to the lyric poet in me (we often make meanings bycreating imagistic “echoes”) and also reassured me that there would be some structure that I, as a poet, might be able to work with.

Did your voice and scenic technique develop, or were they as effortless as you make them appear?

That’s a joke, right? Remember the three (separate and complete) drafts mentioned above. What to say about technique? I do think that as a lyric poet I tend to take crucial moments in an implied narrative and dramatize them as vividly as possible. That may have led, in the memoir, to short chapters, concentrated events, and little commentary on the scene. I remember being very unsure of my descriptive technique and the rhythmic and sonic texture of sentences and paragraphs (as contrasted with the lines of a poem) and reading at random in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to saturate myself with someone who seemed to write a sensuous and observant prose that made for sinuous and interesting sentences. “Saturate” would be the right word—not an analytical thing, but an osmosis.

As an experienced poet, what did you learn about writing from The Blessing?

To be very respectful of prose writers for their descriptive skill, their ability to keep things moving, the whole art of story-telling in an extended narrative form. I never for a moment thought prose writing was easy, but there’s nothing like actually trying something for the first time to increase your respect for professional practitioners. I think I also learned that a lot of human experience is revealed more fully by following a thread (narrative thread, I guess) through time—that it takes much time and many different scenes to let certain major aspects of human experience accumulate their full power. Being a lyric poet, I’ve always wanted everything to be revealed in a single, crisis moment or a single focused dramatic encounter. Art (lyric art) can be like that, but life itself isn’t always that way. So, I guess I learned “patience” with a theme, letting a theme ease out a bit at a time. Patience is not an easily-acquired virtue or insight for lyric poets. We have very, very short attention spans.

How long did the memoir’s actual composition and editing take you?

I think it took about three years of sporadic work. Plus, I had been avoiding writing it for most of my life.

In writing so intimately about your family and about yourself, were you concerned about reactions to the book from friends or family, or about forfeiting your own privacy?

My own privacy didn’t concern me particularly, since I’ve written an autobiographical lyric for much of my life, so I am committed to the power and authenticity that can (theoretically) result from writing in that mode, writing about the incidents of your life and trying to wrestle them into meaning.

I began writing the memoir shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My whole life, I had hoped to talk with him about the early traumatic events, including my brother’s death. I had always imagined we might resolve some of that suffering in conversation, and I tried one last time after his diagnosis, but he was quite adamant that there was nothing he could or would speak about. I felt very uneasy about that stance. For one thing, I felt (irrationally) that my father and I were linked by my brother’s death and by the deeply uncanny fact that he had also killed someone in a hunting accident (his best friend) when he was around the age I was when I killed my brother. This unnerving fact was a kind of unbearable but also unshareable secret between us. No, I could speak of my experience but he couldn’t and wouldn’t speak about his. Which was his prerogative, but when his death approached, I panicked and felt I needed to try to tell the whole story out as I understood it, so as to untangle my identity from my father’s. I was afraid he’d take me to the grave with him. (That sounds a bit odd, but so be it). So, I began to tell the story so as to sort it out once and for all as best I could with what I knew and what I could learn. If you want to call that therapeutic, go ahead.

Of course, I worried about my family’s response, since the whole approach in my growing up was to hide the secrets and bear the shame of it all (whatever it was). There were complicated reactions from my family over time. My father lived long enough to see a draft of it, and was not happy about it, though in all other ways I think we parted with love, as best the two of us understood it at that time and in those circumstances. My siblings had understandably complicated responses, ranging from tears and gratitude to not speaking to me for several years as they worked through their feelings. The ethics of memoir is deeply complicated. I think I’d start by saying: I think everyone should have the right to tell our own story, the story of his or her own life. That said, things get complicated and concern for other people should be there also. The memoir of revenge isn’t very pretty, nor much of a gift to the world. What does Chekhov say: “compassion down to your fingertips?” That would be nice: compassion for others. But the lyric (poem or memoir) is also committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Were other memoirs helpful to you as models in writing The Blessing?

Steve Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind is a beautiful memoir and he told me he wrote it by thinking of the chapters as prose poems—I can’t remember if that was before or after my writing my own book, but it’s a wonderful way to think for a poet writing a memoir. Floyd Skloot has also written wonderfully in an autobiographical mode and he was very encouraging of me and to me—we first “met” through the mails when I had a year-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and he wrote me with information, compassion, and a model of courage. I’m not as well read in the genre as I should be, though one of my favorite books ever is Maxim Gorki’s trilogy of autobiography/memoir: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, My Universities.

Next: Gregory Orr on how memoir “connects the writer to the larger human community” and on memoir as therapeutic “lyric invitation.” Read Orr’s guest post here.

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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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Noted: Tobias Wolff

“Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was pleasure in having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. 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. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”

In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War

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