Tag Archives: Vivian Gornick

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

Essay’s ancient spell, memoir’s transformation

[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41

 

At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .

But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91

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Filed under essay-classical, essay-expository, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

What’s an essay, what’s journalism?

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Over thirty years ago, in the heyday of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe enumerated the techniques, associated with fiction, that can make journalism equally absorbing. He repeated his precepts recently in an essay, “The Emotional Core of the Story,” collected in the excellent 2007 textbook Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. I’ve used this book in journalism feature writing classes, along with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and sometimes The John McPhee Reader.

There are, Wolfe repeats in the book, “exactly four” techniques the successful narrative journalist needs to employ:

 Scenes: Present the narrative in a series of scenes and use “ordinary historical narration” as little as possible.

Dialogue: Quote copious verbal interplay among characters. Dialogue is the easiest prose to read “and the quickest to reveal character.”

Details: The careful use of details that reveal “one’s rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to . . . speech, how one talks to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve . . .”

POV: Point of view that puts the reader “inside the mind of someone other than the writer.”

“Journalists no longer argue about the New Journalism—I mean, how many decades can you keep arguing about something that calls itself ‘new’?” Wolfe writes. “Instead, a new generation of journalists, writing books and magazine articles, have simply appropriated the techniques however they please and are turning out brilliant work—in fact, the best of contemporary American literature, taken as a whole. I could mention more names, but consider just these two and you will know what I mean immediately: Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden.”

Grandpappy Wolfe has taken a lot of credit here, deservedly so, and yet one begins to wonder if he totally missed the latest posse of literary journalists following in the tracks of the late David Foster Wallace. But Wolfe goes on:

To this day newspaper editors resist the idea, but they desperately need their reporters to adopt the Lewis and Bowden approach. It is not that it produces pretty writing—though indeed it does. They need such reporters and writers to provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories. . . .

. . . [E]very newspaper editor in the United States is asking, “How can this newspaper be saved?” They should be asking, how can we get to the emotional heart of our stories? Yet only a few newspaper editors are considering any such thing—not knowing that it is the question of the hour, and that this is the eleventh hour.

Criticizing newspaper editors is good mean fun, and I agree about emotion, but I find Wolfe’s principles incomplete. It seems the best essays do so much more than present scenes, dialogue, details, and someone else’s point of view—and so do magazine articles, which some people are now labeling essays if they’re successfully personal. For instance, in the New Yorker recently (December 19 & 25, 2011) critic James Woods reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, made of pieces that sprang from GQ assignments (and available there on line) and gigs for other magazines, and calls them “essays.”

Woods does this, strangely in my view, by comparing Sullivan’s work to fiction while attacking both the “perceived conservatism” of contemporary short stories and the flaws of Sullivan’s putative nonfiction storytelling model, Mr. Wallace. For example:

Sullivan . . . has been compared to Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace. But he is kinder than the former, and less neurotic than the latter (whose own compassionate sensitivity got blocked by obsessive self-consciousness, or, when unblocked, sometimes emerged as outright sentimentality).

Amen on the big bad Wolfe, James, but nice drive-by on DFW. I suppose Wallace has reached Parnassus, so that criticism can be levied without citing evidence: “If you don’t know WTF I am talking about, it is because you are not well read.” For me, Wallace’s magazine journalism is superior to Wolfe’s because he is warmer while also having more interesting and less political observations, flowing from the fact that he has at least ten IQ points on Wolfe. On Wolfe! Imagine that. Is it possible? The hell of it is that DFW really was smarter than almost anyone.

But, unlike Wolfe, Wallace didn’t present himself as a Master of the Universe; he didn’t ape the halt and lame, though he did have sport with them—and with himself, too. He exposed himself in his reportage in a way Wolfe would never do and never did. Thus Woods dubs him an essayist, while sidestepping labeling Wolfe. Maybe because Wolfe didn’t reveal himself, but appropriated others’ supposed points of view, he’s more obviously and only a journalist.

Woods joins Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (and Dyer’s unmentioned fanboy David Shields), in expressing weariness at the techniques that the bright-eyed Wolfe dragged back into the foul cave of journalism:

One knows exactly what Dyer means by novelization—it’s the clanking train of novelistic grammar (the plots, the formulas, the scenes, the “conflict,” the dialogue, the so-called “telling details.” Roland Barthes spent a lifetime subtly exposing the artifice of this artifice; sometimes he just called it “Fiction,” as if indicating the entire monstrous novelizing urge. . . .

So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction.

Where does this contempt—for fiction on the one hand, traditional journalism on the other—lead?

There’s a huge flap going on right now over John D’Agata’s fabrications in his “lyric essays,” presented in the form of journalism, that alter facts (the day of a boy’s suicide, verifiable numbers recast for better “rhythm”). (Laura Miller’s Salon take is here.) D’Agata seems to have set himself up as the Andy Kaufman of nonfiction: he’s smarter than everyone, and is putting all of us on.

Is D’Agata an outlier who’ll help us find the center? We used to know what we thought journalism was. Apparently, when we weren’t looking, it mated with the essay. And to boot, it seems we’re running out of ways to label nonfiction’s messy genres. Woods has tried to clarify things momentarily, at least for himself, but there’ll be another furious mashup soon that causes everyone to scratch their heads.

At least we’ve lived to see Tom Wolfe, journalism’s three-piece radical, become the fuddy duddy he really always was. I still like his four rules, as far as they go, but it’s interesting that he left out the journalist-as-writer—which is to say, as human being—from his decoction of prose verities. Wolfe’s journalist was a smirking chameleon. DFW’s work restored a moral dimension to personal magazine journalism; he stood before us with a persona seemingly closer to his naked human—and therefore wounded—self. D’Agata, a child prodigy, flaunts his contempt for his audience’s lumpenprole expectations, and stands utterly alone.

John McPhee, who never considered himself a New Journalist, meanwhile keeps writing his personally astringent and intricately structured “essays” or “articles” or “stories” or “pieces”—whatever he or his magazine, The New Yorker, calls them—in his eighth decade. I think both sides still claim him.

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Filed under emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, scene, 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

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Filed under discovery, essay-classical, essay-expository, essay-personal, NOTED, scene, sentimentality, teaching, education, working method

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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Filed under audience, creative nonfiction, discovery, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, scene, subjectivity

Honesty in memoir, ver. 3.1

After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:

To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.

As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?

Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.

Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.

For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?

Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?

And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.

Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:

What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.

Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”

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Filed under creative nonfiction, fiction, honesty, memoir, scene, subjectivity, teaching, education