Debra Gwartney books

A Stop on the NORTHWEST WRITERS BLOG TOUR

Monday, September 29, 2014

What? A Blog Post?

My friend, the wonderful novelist Cai Emmons, recently asked me to participate in the Northwest Writers Blog Tour. I said I would love to, even though it meant cracking through the thick ice of guilt that’s been holding me in stasis about this so-called BLOG of mine. Terribly ignored for too long.

Thanks to Cai for getting me rolling again, and I hope anyone reading this will visit her site for her answers to these questions she’s posed.

I’m eager to find others who want to continue the blog tour. Let me know and I’ll link to your blog (whether neglected as mine or tended to regularly) here.

Narcissa_Whitman_hair

1)     What am I working on? 

I’m now five, perhaps six, years into a book about a particular foiled missionary, the enigmatic Narcissa Whitman. She is, in the annals of history, the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains (a few steps behind her was Eliza Spalding, the second white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains, according to history books). Why am I interested in Narcissa? For many reasons, one of which is her stunningly  presumptuous attitudes about the West–she was called on by God, she said, to “save savage souls” even though she knew absolutely nothing about native people before she showed up to “help” them. I’m also interested in the ways her bitter end was leveraged by others. She was killed with 13 others at the mission called Waiilatpu, a massacre that served as impetus for a whole lot of justifications for clearing this part of the country for white settlers, including my family.
I’ve published essays about NW in various journals, including, most recently, a piece called “Her Hair” in the Crab Orchard Reviewand earlier essays in The American Scholar, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities Magazine.
2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m thinking of this book, wrongly or rightly (as even the shape of it is still in flux) as a sort of memoir-biography; that is, both about her and about me. I want to sort out some of the ways this long-ago woman, with whom I have about nothing in common, has informed me, who I am as a woman in the West.

3)     Why do I write what I do?
An idea gets in my head, I stew on that idea, and maybe one out of a dozen times thoughts related to that stewing make it to paper, and about one out of a hundred times those scribbled notes turn into an essay.4)     How does my writing process work?
When I was a single mom with four kids in the house, I learned to take advantage of whatever minutes came my way. Sentences, paragraphs, maybe a half-hour of revision, piece by piece, bit by bit. I wish I were more disciplined than that, here in my quiet house on the river, but, alas, I’m still a rather catch-as-catch-can writer. Though when I see an open morning or afternoon, I can fall into writing for three or four hours until my brain is fried, and that is wonderful (the writing for hours, not the fried brain or the bleary eyes–)
If anyone out there is interested in continuing the Blog Tour–posting answers to these questions on your own blog and tapping a few others–will you let me know? I’ll link to your site–

A Few Memoir Pitfalls

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A talk I gave this last week at the Pima Writers’ Workshop in Tucson:

I’m here as a writer—as someone who’s grappled with the genre of memoir for many years (a grappling that never seems to let up, no matter the years I devote). I’m also a teacher who’s led workshops on memoir writing for nearly two decades, and I’ve noticed over the years certain tendencies that students fall into. It’s easy to get caught up in such little things—as we all know, little things add up to big things— that make it more difficult for the reader to make good sense out of what’s happening on the page. If our first goal is to engage the reader, whether those readers are our friends and family or as many strangers as we can draw in, then it’s worth the effort to create clarity, to shape the prose so that our readers stick with us.

 

It’s overly obvious, I suppose, to say that memoir is based on memory—on the emotional life of the narrator. A memoir that truly engages (this is my opinion) explores emotional patterns, the relationships that draw us in, that still have their hooks in us for reasons that are often unconscious. These memoirs recognize that the person called “I” is attached to a certain version of the past. At the same time, it’s important to remember that memory is malleable—our memories shift over time. Just ask your sister about a certain day in your childhood, and no doubt you’ll have divergent details of whatever episode you brought up. Also, the way you remember a childhood incident today is likely not how you remembered that same experience five years ago. Our memories are there to serve us. The ways we need to be served change as we change. Tapping into this very notion—just how are my memories serving me?—is a door into compelling memoir writing.

Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous essay, “Memory and Imagination,” says it like this: “We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time. . .but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they possess heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms.

Over time, the value (the feeling) and the stored memory (the image) may become estranged. Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live together.”

 

That is, we store details that consistently remind us who we are. It’s not memory’s aim to gather up details that are irrefutably “true.” True to me, absolutely. True to some other guy? Who knows. Again, from what I’ve read about studies on memory, our memories are there instead to constantly, consistently remind us of who we are and how we fit in the world.

 

Following this line of thinking, the most skilled and engaging memoirists, to my way of reading, don’t dwell quite so much on what happened, but instead on the question that I feel is at the heart of memoir: why do I remember a particular episode (series of episodes) that way? Again, how is my version of the event (not the event itself) serving me and my sense of self?

A few books that go about this exploration with often breathtaking strength and honesty: Stop-Time by Frank Conroy; Bereft by Jane Bernstein; Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Half a Life by Darrin Strauss; Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. So many others that take us on a “voyage of discovery” that is utterly moving and satisfying.

What the reader doesn’t want, and can’t invest in, is a self-pitying narrator. The those bad people did this to good me mode of writing memoir gets tiresome in a hurry. “Don’t sue your reader for sympathy,” I once heard the great Phillip Lopate say.

Instead of self-pity, then, self-curiosity. Instead of a string of excuses, the memoirist does her best to set aside defensiveness before entering the past and examining it anew. As Sven Birkerts writes: “Now, then. Past, present. The sine qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past.”

 

Often what happens in a memoir is that the narrator has an experience—the death of a parent, an illness, an accident, a divorce, an old friend coming to town and stirring up the past, a dream even (Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant memoir, Running in the Family, starts with the line, “It began as a bright bone of a dream”)—that startles her into a new kind of awareness about her long held version of the past. The narrator indicates to the reader that something has compelled her to return to past events, and to muck around there to gain new wisdom, insight, and self-awareness. The narrator, along the way, is able to see her own role in what happened in a manner she hasn’t before. Recognizing agency: that is one of memoir’s central aims.

In his essay, “Marketing Memory,” Bernard Cooper writes, “A good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer’s past. A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in doing so must achieve a balance between language and candor. . .[discovering] language’s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic. The chief privilege of writing a memoir was the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left me dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words.”

 

That’s the end of my longish preamble, which leads me to the first tendency that I so find often in prose written by those who are newly trying out memoir writing—

 

1) The “I” is largely undeveloped. We may be better acquainted with other characters in the piece, but we don’t quite know what to make of those characters because they’re not doing enough to reveal the narrator “I” to us. The central stakes in a memoir relate to the person called “I,” and “I” alone. We’ve been taught, I fear, that it’s narcissistic, that it’s navel gazing, to talk so much about yourself. Well, that’s true if you’re piece is focused on poor me, look at all I’ve been through and how much I’ve suffered. But if the memoir is aimed at the excavation of memory that leads to self-awareness, then writing about yourself is the exact opposite of navel gazing. Such an intimate search for self-meaning is human and authentic. But we cannot enter the story unless we are allowed to know the person called “I,” unless we can rely on her, beginning to end, to be our filter and our guide.

I have noticed, over the years of teaching, that new writers of memoir tend to hide themselves in a crowd (of sorts). That is, the plural first person “we” takes over, supplanting “I.” If the first paragraph is something like, “Every Tuesday in the summer we walked to the store to buy popsicles,” the reader’s question is, who the heck is this “we”? A brother and sister? A neighborhood of kids? The entire fourth grade? And if we continue on with “we”—“We climbed the steep hill to the neighborhood grocery and chose our favorite flavors from the freezer,” etc.—then our disconnect continues.

From the get-go, that is, the meaning is vague, abstract. There’s a distinct lack of a guide who’s going to take us through the experience, and aim us precisely at what we need to see (hear, touch, smell, etc). “Tuesday afternoons in the summer, my brother talked our mother into pulling a dollar bill from her purse and, once that bill was wadded in his hand, I followed him out our door and up the steep sidewalk—five or six blocks that seemed like miles as I scurried to keep up with his longer legs—where we dug around in the freezer for our favorite flavors of popsicles. His was root beer; mine was orange.”

OK, nothing that’s going to win a literary prize—but do you see my point? By allowing the reader to see “I” as a distinct person, separate from the brother, we fall into cadence with our guide, and we begin to recognize the nuances of the family dynamic.

A writer who understands, brilliantly, the balance of “I” and “we” is Tobias Wolff. In This Boy’s Life he often uses a group of characters to reveal the “I” to the reader. That is, the group is dynamic and interesting, and each separate character is distinct and real—but the primary function of the others is to show us aspects of “I” that he couldn’t announce to the reader himself. Here’s an example:

“At five o’clock we turned on the television and watched The Mickey Mouse Club. It was understood that we were all holding a giant bone for Annette. This was our excuse for watching the show, and for me it was partly true. I had certain ideas of the greater world that Annette belonged to, and I wanted a place in this world. I wanted it with all the feverish, disabling hunger of first love.

At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. . .I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old. . . .

As soon as she appeared on the show-Hi, I’m Annette!—Taylor would start moaning and Silver would lick the screen with his tongue. ‘Come here, baby,’ he’d say, ‘I’ve got six inches of piping hot flesh just for you.’

We all said things like that—it was a formality—then we shut up and watched the show. Our absorption was complete. We softened. We surrendered. We joined the club. Taylor forgot himself and sucked his thumb, and Silver and I let him get away with it. We watched the Mousketeers. . .and we didn’t laugh at them. We didn’t laugh when they said nice things about their parents, or when they were polite to each other, or when they said, ‘hey, gang.’

“We watched every minute of it, our eyes glistening in the blue light, and we went on staring at the television after they had sung the anthem and faded into commercials for toothpaste and candy. Then, blinking and awkward, we would rouse ourselves and talk dirty about Annette.”

 

As readers, we’ve already come to know the boy Toby in the earlier pages of the book, and now Wolff the writer wants us to see Toby within a group of boys, so that we can see how he is like the others, and how he is distinctly himself and different than the others.

 

Too often in the pieces I get in workshops, the “I” isn’t given enough to do. We don’t want simply an observer who’s standing back and filling us in on what happened. We want our narrator to act, to be in on the action, as young Toby is in the Mouseketeer scene.

As Phillip Lopate writes in his wonderful essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”: “If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal narrative. . .The point is to begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.”

 

2) Which takes me to the second tendency, and that has to do with scene writing. Many times new writers will turn in memoir pieces that they (the students) believe include scenes. But they haven’t written a scene. They’ve recounted a scene. Scenes require that we’re in a specific place at a specific time, and that action takes place in that place and time. Dialogue. Setting. Something has to change, alter, and become revealed to the reader.

Remember: Just because this passage has scenic elements does not mean it’s a scene. A scene takes place in specific time, not general time. That’s a biggie. Also, though the reader might get something of a sense of place, the family home and a mention of a hallway, space remains largely undefined. Where are the separate characters, precisely, and most important of all, where is the person called “I”?

Another critical question: What’s going on with the “I”? A memoir can only be about the self—not about your mother or your brother who comes home stoned or another brother who hovers in the hallway while the mother and older brother yell at each other. Even if she’s watching the scene unfold, the narrator must identify her own action, her own stakes. What is her role in the family? Does she step between the brother and mother, trying to calm things down? Does she go over and hold her mother’s hand in solidarity? Does she slide over near her big brother, glaring at their mother, to let her sibling know she’s on his side? Does she hide in a corner, soothing the younger brother? The actions will tell us so much about her distinct role—every flinch and movement will add the complexity and depth needed to make a scene matter.

 

Look how Tobias Wolff does just that in This Boy’s Life, in the scene that I consider the most effective in the book:

“We drove farther into the mountains. It was late afternoon. Pale cold light. The river flashed green through the trees beside the road, then turned gray as pewter when the sun dropped. The mountains darkened. Night came on.

Dwight stopped at a tavern in a village called Marblemount, the last settlement before Chinook. He brought a hamburger and fries to the car and told me to sit tight for a while, then he went back inside. After I finished eating I put on my coat and waited for Dwight. Time passed, and more time. Every so often I got out of the car and walked short distances up and down the road. Once I risked a look through the tavern window, but the glass was fogged up.

I went back to the car and listened to the radio, keeping a sharp eye on the tavern door. Dwight had told me not to use the radio because it might wear down the battery. I still felt bad about being afraid of the beaver, and I didn’t want to get into more trouble. I wanted everything to go just right.

[Here we get a passage of reflection/back story, which ends with:]

I could be different. I could introduce myself as a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy. I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This was an idea that died hard, if it ever really died at all.

I played the radio softly, thinking I’d use less power that way. Dwight came out of the tavern a long time after he went in, at least as long as we’d spent getting here from Seattle, and gunned the car out of the lot. He drove fast, but I didn’t worry until we hit a long series of curves and the car began to fishtail. This stretch of the road ran alongside a steep gorge; to our right the slope fell almost sheer to the river. Dwight sawed the wheel back and forth, seeming not to hear the scream of the tires. When I reached for the dashboard he glanced at me and asked what I was afraid of now.

I said I was a little sick to my stomach.

‘Sick to your stomach? A hotshot like you?’

The headlights slid off the road into darkness, then back again. ‘I’m not a hotshot,’ I said.

‘That’s what I hear. I hear you’re a real hotshot. Come and go as you please, when you please. Isn’t that right?’

I shook my head.

‘That’s what I hear,’ he said. ‘Regular man about town. Performer, too. That right? You a performer?’

‘No, sir.’

‘That’s a goddamned lie.’ Dwight kept looking back and forth between me and the road.

‘Dwight, please slow down.’ I said.

‘If there’s one thing I can’t stomach,’ Dwight said, ‘it’s a liar.’

‘Marian says you’re quite the little performer. Is that true?’

‘I guess,’ I said.

‘You guess. You guess. Well, let’s see your act. Go on. Let’s see your act.’ When I didn’t do anything, he said, ‘I’m waiting.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Sure you can. Do me. I hear you do me.’

I shook my head.

‘Do me, I hear you’re good at doing me. Do me with the lighter. Here. Do me with the lighter.’ He held out the Zippo in its velvet case. ‘Go on.’

I sat where I was, both hands on the dashboard. We were all over the road.

‘Take it!’

I didn’t move.

He put the lighter back in his pocket. ‘Hotshot,’ he said. ‘You pull that hotshot stuff around me and I’ll snatch you bald-headed, you understand?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘You’re in for a change, mister. You got that? You’re in for a whole nother ball game.’

I braced myself for the next curve.”

 

Every one of Toby’s (who has changed his name to Jack at this point in the book) actions adds to the deeper stakes of the book—which have to do with the potency and allure of deception—and every line of dialogue, every physical gesture reveals “I” to us and increases the tension. As cruel and unreasonable as Dwight can be in this book, he has hit the proverbial nail on the head here: Toby/Jack is adept at lying; he’s got lying down pat. And he does mock Dwight behind his back. The earlier reflection in the car, while he’s waiting, is integral: just when he’s promised he’s going to be a different kind of boy and give up his errant ways, Dwight returns and calls bullshit on that plan. Dwight recognizes himself in the boy: a liar, a cheater, a manipulator.

 

3) The third point in my pitfalls argument has to do with tense. Memoir’s natural tense is simple past, as past tense allows for the reflective narrator as discussed above. If memoir is what I’ve claimed–not about what you remember, but why you remember is that way—then reflection is the way into such revelations. As Phillip Lopate has pointed out in many of his wise essays on personal narrative, the “I” in memoir has two dimensions: the character “I” in the action, and the narrator “I” who has lived past the event and is looking back on it with insight and wisdom.

And no one explores this dual-I better than Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story: “The writer is possessed of an insight that organizes the writing, and a persona is created to serve the insight.”

I understand the allure of present tense. Many beginning writers I’ve worked feel they must have the sense of immediacy offered by present tense. It’s true that various memoirists have used present tense to great effect—Mark Spragg, for instance, in Where Rivers Change Direction has managed, so deftly, to place us in the “right now” of present tense and yet he uses diction, syntax, and a particular way of shaping insight to consistently remind the reader that the adult narrator is there, too, and the adult “I” is our guide and filter. The present tense boy doesn’t take over the prose—the adult is recounting the boy’s story in present tense. That’s an important distinction.

And it’s hard to do. More often, I see drafts where the child does take over the story. The problem here is that the child has no perspective, can offer no insight. Because the child is experiencing in the moment, he or she cannot possibly “excavate the self,” cannot recognize any pattern of self-delusion, or discover agency.

On the other hand, look at this brilliant passage of reflection from, again, Wolff’s book. He doesn’t add these in often—though there’s not a word, beginning to end, of this memoir that doesn’t come from the “I” narrator rather than the “I” character (except dialogue). But now and then Wolff the writer will bring in Tobias Wolff the narrator to create a larger context and thus a more profound awareness to the story.

 

From This Boy’s Life:

“I made excuses [for my father] long after I should have known better. Then, when I did know better, I resolved to put the fact of his desertion from my mind. I visited him on my way to Vietnam, and then again when I got back, and we became friends. He was no monster—he’d had troubles of his own. Anyway, only crybabies groused about their parents.

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample. She couldn’t find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself. My impatience made her so clumsy that another nurse had to take over.

When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn’t understand what it was until it came upon me that night, so sharply that I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, for days I shook with it when I wasn’t shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given.”

 

 

I could point out more of these so-called “pitfalls,” but I’m going to stop here for the sake of time and attention. Though please allow me to end with more wisdom from the two writers who express, better than any others, craft and style issues related to personal narrative:

 

“If writing a personal narrative is a juggling act, the art may consist of keeping the balls of irresolution and doubt in the air as long as possible. By asking my students to think on the page, I want them to figure out something on their own, some question to which they don’t already have the answer when they start. Then they can truly engage the reader in the adventure of following their quest, as they try to come up with the deepest, most honest and most surprising insight, without self-censorship. When they surprise themselves, it will make them happy and their prose elevated. There is nothing more exciting for the reader than following a live, candid mind thinking on the page.”

–Phillip Lopate

 

“In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author’s inclination, some the opposition—that is, some represent an idea of self, some the agonistic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” –Vivian Gornick, from The Situation and the Story

December Memoir Workshop

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weekend Memoir Intensive

on the McKenzie River

Facilitated by Debra Gwartney

December 8 and 9, 2012

 We’ve recently finished a cozy cottage in the woods, a perfect setting for a small group of writers to come together for two full days of concentration on memoir writing. The weekend will include some discussion of published models and craft issues, though the primary focus will be on the hour-long workshops of individual manuscripts. This intensive is designed for those working on a book length memoir or individual memoir/essay pieces, and is limited to six participants who will each submit (by email to the group) up to fifty pages of text (deadline for that submission is November 15, to give everyone opportunity to read) for the workshop.

Cost: $200 (plus the cost of printing the other participants’ workshop pieces)

Included in this cost are morning coffee/snacks, lunch, and an afternoon snack. A packet of readings will also be provided.

If you’re interested in staying overnight on the river, the wonderful Heaven’s Gate cabins are less than ½ mile from our house. 541 822 3214

For more information, or to sign up, send a message to Debra through the “contact form” on this website.

Thank you!

A Few Memoir Pitfalls, and some thoughts on how to avoid them

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

 

Following is a talk I gave in Sozopol, Bulgaria, on the edge of the Black Sea in May 2012. A gloriously wonderful time with gloriously wonderful people! Thanks to the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for the opportunity to join in on the discussions about the writing life.

***

I’m here as a writer—as someone who’s grappled with the genre of memoir for many years (a grappling that never seems to let up, no matter the years I keep on with this writing). I’m also a teacher who’s led workshops on memoir writing for over a decade, and I’ve noticed over the years certain tendencies that students fall into. It’s easy to get caught up in such little things—but then as we all know, little things add up to big things— that make it more difficult for the reader to make good sense out of what’s happening on the page. If our first goal is to engage the reader, whether those readers are our friends and family or as many strangers as we can draw in, then it’s worth the effort to create clarity, to shape the prose so that our readers stick with us.

It’s overly obvious, I suppose, to say that memoir is based on memory—on the emotional life of the narrator. A memoir that truly engages (this is my opinion) is dedicated to exploring emotional patterns, the relationships that draw us in and that still have their hooks in us for reasons that are often unconscious. These memoirs recognize that the person called “I” is attached to a certain version of the past. What’s that attachment all about? At the same time, it’s important to remember that memory is malleable—our memories shift over time. Just ask your sister about a certain day in your childhood, and no doubt you’ll have divergent details of whatever episode you brought up. Also, the way you remember a childhood incident today is likely not how you remembered that same experience five years ago. Our memories are there to serve us. The ways we need to be served change as we change. Tapping into this very notion—just how are my memories serving me?—is a door into compelling memoir writing.

Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous essay, “Memory and Imagination,” says it like this: “We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time. . .but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to. And, of course, often we cleave to things because they possess heavy negative charges. Pain has strong arms. Over time, the value (the feeling) and the stored memory (the image) may become estranged. Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live together.”

That is, we store details that consistently remind us who we are. It’s not memory’s aim to gather up details that are irrefutably “true.” True to me, absolutely. True to some other guy? Who knows. Again, from what I’ve read about studies on memory, our memories are there instead to constantly, consistently remind us of who we are and how we fit in the world.

Following this line of thinking, the most skilled and engaging memoirists, to my way of reading, don’t dwell quite so much on what happened, but instead on the question that I feel is at the heart of memoir: why do I remember that particular episode (series of episodes) that way? Again, how is my version of the event (not the event itself) serving me and my sense of self?

A few books that go about this exploration with breathtaking power: The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok; Bereft by Jane Bernstein; Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel; Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Half a Life by Darrin Strauss; Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat. So many others that take us on a “voyage of discovery” that is utterly moving and satisfying.

What the reader doesn’t want, and can’t invest in, is a self-pitying narrator. The those bad people did this to good me mode of writing memoir gets tiresome in a hurry. “Don’t sue your reader for sympathy,” I once heard the great Phillip Lopate say.

Instead of self-pity, then, self-curiosity. Instead of a string of excuses, the memoirist does her best to set aside defensiveness before entering the past and examining it anew. As Sven Birkerts writes: “Now, then. Past, present. The sine qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past.”

Often what happens in a memoir is that the narrator has an experience—the death of a parent, an illness, an accident, a divorce, an old friend coming to town and stirring up the past, a dream even (Michael Ondaatje’s brilliant memoir, Running in the Family, starts with the line, “It began as a bright bone of a dream”)—that startles her into a new kind of awareness about the story she’s long told herself about the past. The narrator indicates to the reader that something has compelled her to return to those past events, and to muck around there to gain new wisdom, insight, and self-awareness. The narrator, along the way, is able to see her own role in what happened in a manner she hasn’t before. Recognizing agency: that is one of memoir’s central aims.

In his essay, “Marketing Memory,” Bernard Cooper writes, “A good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer’s past. A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in doing so must achieve a balance between language and candor. . .[discovering] language’s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic. The chief privilege of writing a memoir was the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left me dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words.”

That’s the end of my longish preamble, which leads me to the first tendency that I so find often in prose written by those who are newly trying out memoir writing—

1) The “I” is largely undeveloped. We may be better acquainted with other characters in the piece, but we don’t quite know what to make of those characters because they’re not doing enough to reveal the narrator “I” to us. The central stakes in a memoir relate to the person called “I,” and “I” alone. We’ve been taught, I fear, that it’s narcissistic, that it’s navel gazing, to talk so much about yourself. Well, that’s true if you’re piece is focused on poor me, look at all I’ve been through and how much I’ve suffered. But if the memoir is focused at the excavation of memory that leads to self-awareness, then writing about yourself is the exact opposite of navel gazing. Such an intimate search for self-meaning is human and authentic. But we cannot enter the story unless we are allowed to know the person called “I,” unless we can rely on her, beginning to end, to be our filter and our guide.

I have noticed, over the years of teaching, that new writers of memoir tend to hide themselves in a crowd (of sorts). That is, the plural first person “we” takes over, supplanting “I.” If the first paragraph is something like, “Every Tuesday in the summer we walked to the store to buy popsicles,” the reader’s question is, who the heck is this “we”? A brother and sister? A neighborhood of kids? The entire fourth grade? And if we’re asked to continue on with “we”—“We climbed the steep hill to the neighborhood grocery and chose our favorite flavors from the freezer,” etc.—then our disconnect only deepens.

With the overuse of “we” comes a distinct lack of a guide who’s going to take us through the experience, and emphasize precisely what we need to see (hear, touch, smell, etc). “Tuesday afternoons in the summer, my brother talked our mother into pulling a dollar bill from her purse and, once that bill was wadded in his hand, he let me follow him out our door and up the steep sidewalk—five or six blocks that seemed like miles as I scurried to keep up with his longer legs—where we dug around in the freezer for our favorite flavors of popsicles. His was root beer; mine was orange.”

OK, nothing that’s going to win a literary prize—but do you see my point? By allowing the reader to see “I” as a distinct person, separate from the brother, we fall into cadence with our guide, and we begin to recognize the first nuances of the family dynamic.

A writer who understands, brilliantly, the balance of “I” and “we” is Tobias Wolff. In This Boy’s Life he often uses a group of characters to reveal the “I” to the reader. That is, the group is dynamic and interesting, and each separate character is distinct and real—but the primary function of the others is to show us aspects of “I” that he couldn’t announce to the reader himself. Here’s an example:

“At five o’clock we turned on the television and watched The Mickey Mouse Club. It was understood that we were all holding a giant bone for Annette. This was our excuse for watching the show, and for me it was partly true. I had certain ideas of the greater world that Annette belonged to, and I wanted a place in this world. I wanted it with all the feverish, disabling hunger of first love.

At the end of every show the local station gave an address for Mousketeer Mail. I had begun writing Annette. . .I gave Annette some very detailed descriptions of my contests with the friskier fellows I ran up against. I also invited her to consider the fun to be had in visiting Seattle. I told her we had lots of room. I did not tell her that I was eleven years old. . . .

As soon as she appeared on the show-Hi, I’m Annette!—Taylor would start moaning and Silver would lick the screen with his tongue. ‘Come here, baby,’ he’d say, ‘I’ve got six inches of piping hot flesh just for you.’

We all said things like that—it was a formality—then we shut up and watched the show. Our absorption was complete. We softened. We surrendered. We joined the club. Taylor forgot himself and sucked his thumb, and Silver and I let him get away with it. We watched the Mousketeers. . .and we didn’t laugh at them. We didn’t laugh when they said nice things about their parents, or when they were polite to each other, or when they said, ‘hey, gang.’

We watched every minute of it, our eyes glistening in the blue light, and we went on staring at the television after they had sung the anthem and faded into commercials for toothpaste and candy. Then, blinking and awkward, we would rouse ourselves and talk dirty about Annette.”

As readers, we’ve already come to know the boy Toby in the earlier pages of the book, and now Wolff the writer wants us to see Toby within a group of boys, so that we can see who he is with these (all of the boys on the cusp of change, leaving childhood behind to enter the teenage years), and how he is distinctly himself and different than the others as he goes about that shift.

Too often in the pieces I get in workshops, the “I” isn’t given enough to do. We don’t want simply an observer who’s standing back and filling us in on what happened. We want our narrator to act, to be in on the action, as young Toby is in the Mouseketeer scene and in every other in the book.

As Phillip Lopate writes in his wonderful essay, “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”: “If you are so panicked by any examination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal narrative. . .The point is to begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.

2) Which takes me to the second tendency, and that has to do with scene writing. Many times new writers will turn in memoir pieces that they (the students) believe include scenes. But they haven’t written a scene. They’ve recounted a scene. Scenes require that we’re in a specific place at a specific time, and that action takes place in that place and time. Dialogue. Setting. Something has to change, alter, and become revealed to the reader.

Here’s an example of student’s work– she presented this as a scene:

John and I had 10 p.m. curfews throughout high school, and while I generally stuck to it, he often wandered home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of pot and booze. His eyes and his actions, however, indicated his nights consisted of substances far more sinister. His boots on the hardwood floor woke my mother and they screamed and argued with one another until Kyle and I peeked out of our rooms and our wide eyes met. Kyle scurried back to bed as John approached the room they shared and my mother returned to her bedroom and slammed the door. Most nights, I was left staring into an empty hall. It was seldom, though, that much time would pass before I heard my brothers’ bedroom door creak open. John, comfortable in pajamas, emerged and we snuck down the hall to the living room. He was always in charge of what we watched on TV those early mornings, and it was always The History Channel.”

Just because this passage has scenic elements does not mean it’s a scene. A scene takes place in specific time, while this passage takes place in general time. That’s a biggie. Also, though we get something of a sense of place, the family home and a mention of a hallway, space remains largely undefined. Where in this space are the separate family members, exactly, and most important of all, where is the person called “I”?

Another critical question: What’s going on with the “I” in this student’s story? Not enough is happening. A memoir can only be about the self—not about the mother or the brother who comes home stoned or the other brother scared in the hallway. She hasn’t yet identified her own action, her own stakes. What is her role in the family? Does she step between the brother and mother, trying to calm things down? Does she go over and hold her mother’s hand in solidarity? Does she slide over near her big brother, glaring at their mother, to let John know she’s on his side? Does she hide in a corner, soothing the younger brother? Her actions could tell us so much—every flinch and movement could add to the complexity and depth needed to make a scene matter.

Look how Tobias Wolff does just that in This Boy’s Life, in the scene that I consider the most effective in the book:

“We drove farther into the mountains. It was late afternoon. Pale cold light. The river flashed green through the trees beside the road, then turned gray as pewter when the sun dropped. The mountains darkened. Night came on.

Dwight stopped at a tavern in a village called Marblemount, the last settlement before Chinook. He brought a hamburger and fries to the car and told me to sit tight for a while, then he went back inside. After I finished eating I put on my coat and waited for Dwight. Time passed, and more time. Every so often I got out of the car and walked short distances up and down the road. Once I risked a look through the tavern window, but the glass was fogged up.

I went back to the car and listened to the radio, keeping a sharp eye on the tavern door. Dwight had told me not to use the radio because it might wear down the battery. I still felt bad about being afraid of the beaver, and I didn’t want to get into more trouble. I wanted everything to go just right.

[Here we get a passage of reflection/back story, which ends with:]

I could be different. I could introduce myself as a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy. I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others. This was an idea that died hard, if it ever really died at all.

I played the radio softly, thinking I’d use less power that way. Dwight came out of the tavern a long time after he went in, at least as long as we’d spent getting here from Seattle, and gunned the car out of the lot. He drove fast, but I didn’t worry until we hit a long series of curves and the car began to fishtail. This stretch of the road ran alongside a steep gorge; to our right the slope fell almost sheer to the river. Dwight sawed the wheel back and forth, seeming not to hear the scream of the tires. When I reached for the dashboard he glanced at me and asked what I was afraid of now.

I said I was a little sick to my stomach.

‘Sick to your stomach? A hotshot like you?’

The headlights slid off the road into darkness, then back again. ‘I’m not a hotshot,’ I said.

‘That’s what I hear. I hear you’re a real hotshot. Come and go as you please, when you please. Isn’t that right?’

I shook my head.

‘That’s what I hear,’ he said. ‘Regular man about town. Performer, too. That right? You a performer?’

‘No, sir.’

‘That’s a goddamned lie.’ Dwight kept looking back and forth between me and the road.

‘Dwight, please slow down.’ I said.

‘If there’s one thing I can’t stomach,’ Dwight said, ‘it’s a liar.’

‘Marian says you’re quite the little performer. Is that true?’

‘I guess,’ I said.

‘You guess. You guess. Well, let’s see your act. Go on. Let’s see your act.’ When I didn’t do anything, he said, ‘I’m waiting.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can.’

‘No, sir.’

‘Sure you can. Do me. I hear you do me.’

I shook my head.

‘Do me, I hear you’re good at doing me. Do me with the lighter. Here. Do me with the lighter.’ He held out the Zippo in its velvet case. ‘Go on.’

I sat where I was, both hands on the dashboard. We were all over the road.

‘Take it!’

I didn’t move.

He put the lighter back in his pocket. ‘Hotshot,’ he said. ‘You pull that hotshot stuff around me and I’ll snatch you bald-headed, you understand?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘You’re in for a change, mister. You got that? You’re in for a whole nother ball game.’

I braced myself for the next curve.”

Every one of Toby’s (who has changed his name to Jack at this point in the book) actions adds to the deeper stakes of the book—which have to do with the potency and allure of deception—and every line of dialogue, every physical gesture reveals “I” to us and increases the tension. As cruel and unreasonable as Dwight can be in this book, he has hit the proverbial nail on the head here: Toby/Jack is adept at lying; he’s got lying down pat. And he does mock Dwight behind his back. The earlier reflection in the car, while Toby/Jack is waiting, is integral: just when he’s promised he’s going to be a different kind of boy and give up his errant ways, Dwight returns and calls bullshit on that plan. Dwight recognizes himself in the boy: a liar, a cheater, a manipulator.

3) The third point in my pitfalls argument has to do with tense. Memoir’s natural tense is simple past, as past tense allows for the reflective narrator as discussed above. If memoir is what I’ve claimed–not about what you remember, but why you remember is that way—then reflection is the way into such revelations. As Phillip Lopate has pointed out in many of his wise essays on personal narrative, the “I” in memoir has two dimensions: the character “I” in the action, and the narrator “I” who has lived past the event and is looking back on it with insight and wisdom.

And no one explores this dual-I better than Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story: “The writer is possessed of an insight that organizes the writing, and a persona is created to serve the insight.”

I understand the allure of present tense. Many beginning writers I’ve worked feel they must have the sense of immediacy offered by present tense. It’s true that various memoirists have used present tense to great effect—Mark Spragg, for instance, in Where Rivers Change Direction has managed, so deftly, to place us in the “right now” of present tense and yet he uses diction, syntax, and a particular way of shaping insight to consistently remind the reader that the adult narrator is there, too, and the adult “I” is our guide and filter. The present tense boy doesn’t take over the prose—the adult is recounting the boy’s story in present tense. That’s an important distinction.

And it’s hard to do. More often, I see drafts where the child does take over the story. The problem here is that the child has no perspective, can offer no insight. Because the child is experiencing in the moment, he or she cannot possibly “excavate the self,” cannot recognize any pattern of self-delusion, or discover agency.

On the other hand, look at this brilliant passage of reflection from, again, Wolff’s book. He doesn’t add these in often—though there’s not a word, beginning to end, of this memoir that doesn’t come from the “I” narrator rather than the “I” character (except dialogue). But now and then Wolff the writer will bring in the narrator to create a larger context and thus a more profound awareness and meaning.

“I made excuses [for my father] long after I should have known better. Then, when I did know better, I resolved to put the fact of his desertion from my mind. I visited him on my way to Vietnam, and then again when I got back, and we became friends. He was no monster—he’d had troubles of his own. Anyway, only crybabies groused about their parents.

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. He came three weeks early, when I was away from home. The first time I saw him, in the hospital nursery, a nurse was trying to take a blood sample. She couldn’t find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself. My impatience made her so clumsy that another nurse had to take over.

When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew that I was more alive than I had been before. But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges. It made me uneasy, so I ignored it. I didn’t understand what it was until it came upon me that night, so sharply that I wanted to cry out. It was about my father, ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage, for days I shook with it when I wasn’t shaking with joy for my son, and for the new life I had been given.”

I could point out more of these so-called “pitfalls,” but I’m going to stop here for the sake of time and attention. Though please allow me to end with more wisdom from the two writers who express, better than any others, craft and style issues related to personal narrative:

“If writing a personal narrative is a juggling act, the art may consist of keeping the balls of irresolution and doubt in the air as long as possible. By asking my students to think on the page, I want them to figure out something on their own, some question to which they don’t already have the answer when they start. Then they can truly engage the reader in the adventure of following their quest, as they try to come up with the deepest, most honest and most surprising insight, without self-censorship. When they surprise themselves, it will make them happy and their prose elevated. There is nothing more exciting for the reader than following a live, candid mind thinking on the page.”

–Phillip Lopate

“In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author’s inclination, some the opposition—that is, some represent an idea of self, some the agonistic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” –Vivian Gornick, from The Situation and the Story

 

BOOK SUGGESTIONS

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

At the wonderful Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference this past week,

I promised several participants a list of the book titles I mentioned. I’m trying to remember most of the titles I tossed out as part of the discussion on memoir writing–

Here are at least some of those.

The Situation and The Story, Vivian Gornick

Time and the Art of Memoir, Sven Birkerts

The Business of Memory, edited by Charles Baxter

The introduction to Phillip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay

I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl, especially “Memory and Imagination”

Stop-Time, Frank Conroy

Speak, Memory, VS Nabokov

Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick

Half a Life, Darin Strauss

The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok

This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff

Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman

Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy

Bereft, Jane Bernstein

Where Rivers Change Direction, Mark Spragg

Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat

The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster

And When Did You Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison

The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknovich

The Bill From My Father, Bernard Cooper

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn

So many more, many more–which I will add as they roll forward in my tired brain.

What a grand conference. Thank you to all of you on the glorious Homer Spit!

On Beginning a Memoir

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The text of my presentation for a recent AWP panel called “The Rooted Narrator,” with co-panelists Jill Christman, Bonnie Rough, Sonya Huber, and Dan Raeburn.

Memoir’s Prologue

When I decided many years ago now to sit down and write a story about a series of traumatic events in my family—armed with notes from memoir courses I had taken during graduate school from Vivian Gornick—I kept the first venture, a distinct piece of memoir writing, to a manageable 2000-3000 words. Once that one was published, in Creative Nonfiction, I wrote another and published it in a fabulous Salon section, now defunct, called “Mothers Who Think.” A third piece went to Fourth Genre. A wrote another and yet another, also published. I reveled in my good fortune in finding homes for those brief memoirs, and got a little cocky about possibilities for a book. I thought I’d just weave the stand-alone pieces together, this strand tucked under that one, and there it would be, my book-length memoir all stitched together.

Five years later, with a whole bunch of failed attempts for said book stacked on my desk, I knew I needed help in understanding the long form. I got that help via several routes, one of which was a much closer study of the classics in the memoir canon, including those I’d read years before in those rigorous Vivian Gornick courses. What I was seeking was an element I hadn’t quite reckoned with yet, the “persona of the narrator” (which is Gornick’s term). This is the essential voice in memoir that I’ve come to also call the narrator-looking-back, the voice of person who has lived through the experiences but realizes at some point that she must revisit the past with more honesty, self-curiosity, and willingness to acknowledge agency.

I discovered in re-reading these books that the writer often uses a prologue—sometimes called an introduction, sometimes part of the first chapter—to introduce the “remembering self” (a term brought up by AWP co-panelist Dan Raeburn), and also to suggest the impetus for the journey back into the past. The necessity for a new relationship/reconciliation with past events often comes upon some of these narrators suddenly—something occurs (and that something is often, on its face, quite innocuous) that convinces them that it’s absolutely time to break apart certain calcified memories and to at least attempt to inch toward a new form of self-awareness.

For instance, this passage in the “Savages” chapter of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time: “It is two o’clock in the morning. I lie in bed watching the back of my wife’s neck. She sleeps, she is part of the night. The baby wakes at seven, her sleep is for both of them. Sleep is everywhere. I am like a bather at the edge of a pool. My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually.”—skipping ahead a few lines—”My memories flash like clips of film from unrelated movies. I wonder, suddenly if I am alive. I know I’m not dead, but am I alive? I look into the memories for reassurance, searching for signs of life. I find someone moving. Is it me? My chest tightens.”

Conroy decided, at some point in writing, Stop-Time, to evoke the person in crisis, the “I” who must comb through the past to discover his own role in a larger family and societal dynamic that as a boy he was barely managed to survive. Readers understand that the voice of the “bather at the edge of the pool’s” voice is not the voice of the boy Frank. Instead this is the voice of the man who will, for the next 300 pages, recount the boy’s experience, the adult who has lived through those experiences, yet in the middle of a particular haunted night realizes that the past is not finished. It isn’t done with him, nor is he done with it.

This nod to the narrator’s present day life shows up only now and then through the rest of Conroy’s book, often in swift parenthetical phrases—we don’t get to know the wife mentioned here or the child or the life that the “I” lives now, except that he drives suicidally fast through London and vomits in fountains. But we have met “the persona of the narrator,” that Gornick term again, the person who’ll take us on a journey through the boy’s bumpy life so Conroy the adult can view the past with more honesty, clarity, and, as I mentioned earlier, more agency. That is, time to meet himself again and to come away with hard-won knowledge of intentions and motivations he’d previously hidden from himself.

Because we’ve met the narrator-looking-back in these early pages, we are assured that the voice will stay consistent throughout, all the way to the end. Except for brief passages of dialogue, the narrative does not get turned over to the boy. Every insight is delivered to the reader through the filter of the older self.

This is often the mode established in memoir’s prologue: the narrator is introduced, rooted, we hear his/her voice, and a sense of urgency about revisiting the past rises from the text. Also, the sensory details provided in these early pages, the very shape of the initial scene, establishes an emotional tenor that prepares the reader for what’s ahead.

Maybe no prologue does this more effectively than Geoffrey Wolff’s in Duke of Deception, except for perhaps Michael Ondaatje’s prologue in Running in the Family. Wolff presents—again evoking the narrator who will, a few pages from now, plunge into the depths of the past—a narrator who’s lounging on the porch, unyoked from the cares of the world and yet not, as we know from the first line of the book: “On a sunny day in a sunny humor I could think of death as mere gossip, the ugly rumor behind that locked door over there.” The setting forth of that reflective voice, of utmost importance to establishing the launch of the book, convinces the reader that Wolff’s “sunny day” will suddenly, jarringly, go bad. The reader witnesses the unfolding of events from the narrator’s perspective, which the character of Geoffrey, the man with the “icy feel of the glass against my chest,” could not have conceived in that moment on the porch. Only the narrator-looking-back, artfully and persuasively, can achieve an essential distance from the self. It’s the narrator-looking-back who shows herself/himself swiftly in a moment that is both rooted and in some ways uprooted (by that I mean a narrator who realizes he must come to terms with a particular version of his own younger self or else live in a sort of troubling fog of self-deception).

From the first word of Duke we know who is telling the story, and by the end of the prologue, we know why. “The words did not then strike a blow above my heart,” he writes, concerning his response to news of his father’s death (which was to blurt out, “Thank God.”), “but later they did, and there was no calling them back, there is no calling them back now. All I can do is try to tell what they meant.”

I’ve found that the prologue is often used in book-length memoir to create the impetus, the trigger, while setting forth the voice that will remain consistent throughout the book. The questions Wolff poses for himself in these early pages resonate through the rest of the pages to remind us, again and again, that the book is about the adult Geoffrey, who recalls with curiosity (rather than defensiveness) his younger self. The book is not about the larger-than-life Duke, easy as it would have been to let Duke take over. Duke’s central job as a character in this book is to reveal the character of Geoffrey to the reader—and he does that very well. By coming to know Geoffrey’s various reactions and responses to his father’s behavior—how these reactions shape the boy into a man—we come to know Geoffrey’s “two halves of the self in conflict,” which is imperative in memoir.

In my study of prologues from memoir, I found similar approaches (establish the narrator’s voice, set the emotional tenor, suggest the impetus for revisiting the past) in such books as Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Kim Barnes’ In the Wilderness, Elizabeth Kendall’s American Daughter, Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. Also, Jane Bernstein’s wonderful memoir, Bereft, in which the narrator “I” realizes she must go back and discover the hidden story about her sister’s murder, and in the process unburden herself of long held self-delusion. Her prologue ends with these lines: “What an odd thing, to be a spectral figure wafting near the ceiling of this apartment, to look down on this story I cannot change. . .I want symmetry, a happy ending, a story where all the clues will add up. Let me forget again, I think, when I awake. But Laura’s voice stays with me: Tell the story, she says. It’s the least you can do. i mean i am your sister.”

And a final example from Mark Doty’s Firebird, the end lines of his prologue which, again, I feel prepare the reader for the journey ahead and establish the voice, as well as the urgency for combing through certain dimensions of the past: “The book he’s reading configures this space: house and mother, sister and closet and father, endless hallway, tumult of wings. His book angles and skews them by artifice, and then tries to use artifice to set them right.”

As for me, once I understood the work that a prologue can do to spark the journey that will take place over the rest of the book, I decided to write one myself, and I settled on an episode that occurred nearly a decade after the trauma in my family had, I thought, been solved. In this prologue, the person called “I” sits next to a girl on a city bus—a girl who’s clearly in a bad state. She enrages me, disgusts me, an emotional uproar that soon strikes me as far too visceral for such an encounter. I remembered how upset I was by her, and realized this was a moment I could elevate to scene, use to explore the ways the past wasn’t yet finished. The monumental task ahead meant a return to painful events, memories, and the willingness to see myself back there, faint as that presence was at times, to muck around until I got at least a glimpse of who I was then, to better know who I am now.

No More Desert Cities

Thursday, February 23, 2012

As if memoir hasn’t been kicked around enough by the self-appointed literary police out there (those critics/readers/whomever willing to pounce on what they consider the least transgression in the genre), now there’s a play—a play on Broadway no less, and one of the season’s big hits—that tangles and diminishes some more the too-often misunderstood form.

The play is called Other Desert Cities, and I saw it with my husband on a recent quick trip to New York. The production we most wanted to get to, Richard III with Kevin Spacey as the tormented king, was sold out—no chance of picking up a couple of Saturday night seats at BAM. A friend told us he could find tickets for Other Desert Cities, though he whispered under his breath that he himself had found the story “soap opera-y.” That should have put the skids on our plans right there, but he’d seen the play early on, and the New York Times review I looked up assured me that the acting had gelled, the pacing improved, and the overall production was more mature. So I talked my husband into heading into the psychedelic madhouse of Times Square—where we were nearly smashed by a gang of tourists rushing past us with their phones snapping photos of a giant projection of Justin Bieber—to watch Rachel Griffiths (who I loved to hate in Six Feet Under), Stockard Channing (what could go wrong if she’s on stage?), and Stacey Keach, among others, gyrate through a nasty Christmas-time family squabble.

Other Desert Cities enticed me most of all because Griffiths plays a writer, a fortyish woman (one of my many problems with the play—the ages of the characters are nearly impossible to sort out) with one successful novel in her past and a new book—a memoir—punchy enough that the New Yorker plans to run an excerpt.

About twenty minutes into the show—and our friend had secured us seats that offered a perfect view of the stage—I started to wonder if playwright Jon Robin Baitz had actually ever read a memoir. Because from the get-go, Brooke Wyeth (Griffiths’ character), comes off as an entitled brat regarding her precious manuscript, that thick collection of pages she brought with her from Long Island, that years-of-work collection of pages that she’d made copies of for everyone to read right then, right there. It was Brooke’s whining, a low drone that increased in volume and intensity in the first act, that caused me to sink lower and lower in my seat.

Why won’t you read my book? [Stomps feet] Why don’t you drop everything and pay attention to me, me, me? [Stomp, stomp]

The family has a rotten old secret, one the parents—so Republican that they have “Nancy” over for tea (the play is set in 2004, before Nancy’s demise)—have spent half a lifetime hiding like so much Gollum stink in a deep underground cave. The secret is so damning and dangerous that even the couple’s grown children know only about half of it. The half she does know is the plot of Brooke’s grating book (I know it’s grating because she read part of it aloud. Ick.). She makes it clear that the fat bunch of pages she thrusts toward her hugely disappointed mother (and you know that those two hundred fifty pieces of paper are going to find themselves mid-air, flung by angry Brooke, before the last act) is nothing but a castigation of the right-wing parents—their politics, their hypocrisy, their failures as mother and father to their creative, darling children.

Those bad, bad people over there have done harm to good, good me.

Haven’t we had enough of these litanies-of-complaint? These are the books, upon which some publishing/marketing person has slapped the label of “memoir,” that I despise, even as they keep getting published. And the Booth Theatre audience some weeks back left convinced, I’m convinced, that this is what memoir does: attacks, blames, pitches a fit. Griffiths’ character insists, over and over, that it is her “right” to expose her family for what it is (at least, what she has come to believe it is), with nary a single gesture toward her own agency, her own role in the dynamic, the self-excavation (a Vivian Gornick term) that is at the heart of memoir writing.

Years ago I heard the great Phillip Lopate say that the aim of memoir is self-awareness. A small flinch—because life’s lessons come that incrementally—in the direction of knowing yourself a bit better. Maybe the narrator in the epilogue of Stop-Time is still a wild-eyed and self-destructive maniac who might just drive his car into a wall, but because we’ve been with Frank Conroy through a series of fiercely honest and revealing episodes from the past—because we’re convinced as readers that he has faced most of the most hidden parts of himself—we know that he has inched toward seeing himself more clearly by the end of the book.

But, as I said, it doesn’t seem that Baitz read Stop-Time, or Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, or the Brothers Wolff, or, more recently, Darrin Strauss’ amazing Half A Life, Jane Bernstein’s Bereft, or Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction. If he did read these books, or any of the hundreds of others every bit as moving, honest, and riveting, then he failed to recognize just where the power of memoir lies. Not in the blaming (including blame of self) and despising, not in the defensiveness that emanates from Brooke-the-writer, but in the vulnerable, honest search for one’s own role in a larger dynamic. “We are in the presence of a mind puzzling through its own shadows,” writes Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, yet another book I wish Baitz had studied before presenting the story of a memoirist to eager audiences, night after night, under the glittering lights of Broadway.

 

 

You Must Revise Your Life

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1, 2012

On this first day of the new year, I am working on a class I’ll lead at the Pacific University MFA in Writing Residency in Seaside, Oregon, (excited to get there–to see in person the wonderful writers I’ve been working with this past semester, to reconnect with students, faculty, and to meet new MFA students). The class is a discussion of Revision, the elements of which have seemed perhaps overly obvious as I’ve compiled my notes–

Let the first draft go its own way, keeping those itchy editor fingers away from the prose as much as possible–

Go into revision with the true intent to “see again” and find the precise language, the sensory detail, the elevation of a few select episodes into scene in order to best reveal that which the piece is trying to say/the heart of its meaning.

Don’t mistake copy editing or proofreading for deep-down revision.

More, much more, but instead of going on about revising, I’ll offer this Richard Bausch quote that rather says it all:

“You touch one part of it and the whole thing shivers, from one end to the other. It’s such a delicate thing, revision, and revision is where the artistry is; and so you have to be ruthless, and put away anything–even parts you like the sound of, even the matters that speak from your secret self to who you hope you are–put away anything that does not contribute to the whole thing. And God damn, it is hard.”  –Richard Bausch

Even if the process of revision sounds straightforward and simple, it can be excruciatingly difficult at times (as any writer well knows). If the first draft pumps endorphins, spins the mind with delight and possibility, the work required on subsequent drafts can cause the brain to ache, and can cause one’s confidence to plummet. I have definitely hit some dark times during revision–serious doubts about my abilities. How will these passages ever work? Sometimes the effort cannot succeed, no matter the hours put in, and the piece is, rightfully so, abandoned. Sometimes the right word, phrase, image comes along and I sense a marvelous cohesion that I couldn’t have predicted or pushed for. There it is, from some deep recess of my mind, precisely what was needed, appearing right in front of me. And of course that’s the payoff, the gift, of revision.

While musing on revision, I thought many times of William Stafford’s book You Must Revise Your Life, and that led me to dig around on my poetry shelf for the right volume so I could reread my favorite Stafford poem. For many years I kept a copy of this poem folded up in my wallet. I can’t really say why, except that I had an uncanny knack of pulling it out and reading it at exactly the right times, when the lines would speak to me–and it spoke in different ways, new and fresh and insightful, at each reading.

Here it is, “Ask Me.” I wonder how many times it was revised.

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

–William Stafford

Emulating Hazel

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When I came across this photo of my great-grandmother Hazel Maud Long Gwartney some weeks ago–a photo that features her astonishingly thick, abundant hair–I thought I would try to recreate the photo with my own daughters who each have a head of thick, abundant hair (though blonde to her nearly black). I believe the Hazel photo was taken in Salmon, Idaho, shortly after she moved there with her new husband and my great-grandfather, Leslie Nugent Gwartney.

Here’s how he explains their first home as a married couple in his book, My First Eighty Years: 

“On the second day of May, 1917, we arrived at Salmon, Lemhi County, Idaho. . .I asked a businessman in Salmon if there were any ranch jobs available and he pointed to a small man walking down the street and said, ‘That’s Pete McKinney and he is superintendent of a lot of ranches and hires a lot of men.’ I caught up with him and asked him about a job. He wanted to know what I could do and I told him I could do anything to be done on a ranch. How wrong I was. He wanted to know about my wife and wanted to meet her. We went up to the hotel and I introduced him to Mrs. Gwartney. He wanted to know if she could cook and she said she had never cooked for a crew of men, but had done some home cooking. ‘OK, there will be a man and wife drive into the livery barn today about noon in a buckboard. You load up your trunks and drive up the Lemhi nine miles and you will come to a place with a lot of cottonwood trees. Go in and tell the Sweed foreman that I hired you.’

We got out to the ranch about five o’clock, introduced ourselves to the foreman, who pointed out the kitchen to Mrs. Gwartney and said there will be fourteen for supper. Wow! I had been around working men and ranch crews and had some knowledge of cooking for ranch hands. We found a quarter of a beef in the cooler, a sack of potatoes and there was plenty of bread, so I started cutting beef, Mrs. Gwartney peeling spuds. There was cucumbers and onions. We had steak, fried potatoes, beefsteak gravey and cucumbers with sliced onions in vinegar. No one went away hungry. So much for the first meal. ”

I believe her photo, a rare one with her hair down, was taken out at this ranch, where they stayed (and worked) for some years. 

 

 

 

 

 

And here are the daughters–these photos taken (thank you, Pete H for the help) at Finn Rock, Oregon, in Hazel-like poses:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something of a Beginning

Monday, December 5, 2011

Does the world–the internet world, the world in general–need another blog? Probably not. But here I am entering into the fray well behind the curve–behind two or three curves, actually (as is my tendency, slow to the current mode). I plan to use this space for occasional updates on food, books, discussions of nonfiction writing craft, family life, the beautiful place where we live, etc. In other words, the usual smatter of blog posts.

I look forward to hearing from anyone who has a comment on these thoughts.

Last week was Thanksgiving Day–as everyone is well aware, especially those about to (a little guiltily) throw the last remnants of the turkey in the garbage, and those still trying to work off the extra gravy and mashed potatoes (me on both accounts).

baking Mamie’s rolls on Thanksgiving 2011

 

The traditional holiday is noted with some stir of nostalgia here because my first child, my first daughter, was born on Thanksgiving Day, the moment I became an impossibly young  mother. Not impossible, obviously, though I’m stunned at how young I was, 21, though at the time I believed I was appropriately old and mature, since I’d been born when my parents were considerably younger.

Anyway, I was in labor all day, and by that I mean all day, morning to night, overly anxious and no doubt obnoxious to everyone in the “birthing center” (regular old hospital room with a couple of comfy chairs and better magazines). It turns out that when I’m in that kind of pain, I go silent, so when the endless parades of cheerful hospital workers came in waving plates of turkey dinner or a big slice of pumpkin pie in my face, all I could do was glare. Since I’d been vomiting into a plastic bedpan next to my face for several hours, I most definitely did not want to see, smell, or even hear about Thanksgiving feasts.

After Amanda was born at about 10:30 that night–a hard snow falling out the window in Spokane–I could have eaten the proverbial horse. I was cleaned up and back in my room with this astonishing new person, swaddled tight, asleep next to me, when my mother’s cousin, and a hero for life, snuck into the strict Catholic hospital with a turkey sandwich and a cold glass of milk. I can still almost feel that meal, hearty and nourishing, the crisp lettuce and the thick turkey and the chilly milk, in my belly. It was if I’d consumed the earth itself, at least a taste of all the elements, I felt so abundantly fed, exhausted beyond belief, yet capable of anything.

And then the next day the hospital released me. Plopped me, along with my young husband, out on the sidewalk with our baby. We’d taken those popular breathing classes, preparing for labor once a week with all the other earnest young parents, but no one had mentioned anything about the after labor part of things. No one mentioned the going home with a baby and figuring everything out side of this pact. Thank goodness, my mother and grandmother were waiting for us at our house, and they spent that first day creating what was then my favorite dinner while I stared at the ceiling trying to sort out if I was up to this. (It’s when they left a few days later that I practically pressed my face against the living room window, watching their car pull away, about to break down with terror: do they realize what they are doing, these crazy women? Leaving me, who knows nothing, with an actual human child?)

Oddly, I have not cooked up this dinner myself in subsequent years. I’ve preferred leaving it in their domain, my mother’s and my grandmother’s. Prefer leaving it to the memory of this first day at home with the first child and my first tremulous notions of motherhood. A plate of utterly tender chunks of roast beef in a fairly delicate sauce–this is not boeuf bourguignon or even a stroganoff, but simple peasant food–over noodles, and on the side, lacking in nutrition though it is, sliced iceberg lettuce, with finely chopped avocado and cauliflower, tossed in a buttermilk dressing.

I ate this sumptuous meal, so exactly right in its flavors, its textures, its warmth and snap, and then sat down on the soft sofa to nurse my fussing two-day-old daughter, yowling myself when she “latched,” which I wouldn’t get used to for at least another week (even nipples, it turns out, must work up to the callus).

Sleeping with Amanda Mae

 

Once she was asleep again, I went into the kitchen to help with the clean up. That’s when I noticed the pan the meat had cooked in all day–a pan that was a wedding present but that I’d never used because it came with a note warning about the lengthy process necessary to remove the potentially harmful and definitely toxic coating on the surface. My grandmother had ranged around in the cupboard and found this gorgeous cookware still in its box–how was she to know why it shouldn’t have been touched, let alone heated to release its hazards?

Without explaining to either of them, I ran to the bathroom and stuck my finger down my throat, forcing myself to throw up dinner, but even then knowing that I was too late–I’d already passed poison on to my baby through my breast milk. I was shouting at my husband to call the doctor, to tell him we had to get to the hospital to pump her stomach. My grandmother and mother by now were standing in the hallway, frightened, confused, hands wringing, hands thrown bewildered in the air. My husband handed me the phone, our calm and ever reassuring doctor on the other end, and this man told me to sit down, take a breath, maybe even sip a glass of wine, and get over myself. Everyone was going to survive, he promised me. Not enough chemicals from the pan’s coating could make it from my belly to hers to cause any problem. I might have a stomach ache later. She might, too. That was all.

I did sit, calm down, weep a little in the aftermath of adrenalin ache–and spent the entire night wide awake thinking about the fragility of this small human who would now be in my care. In my care. Good God. How would I manage to protect her for decades ahead, when the first danger she confronted in her ever-so-brief life came straight from me?

Turns out I did cause her more pain, more heartache and difficulty, though I never meant to. The angry, bitter times between us have largely been tempered by love and a mutual desire to find our way back to each other no matter what. She’s now a mother herself–and she seems to me much more capable than I was back then, though of course not without her own challenges. Who gets to do this parenting thing without challenges?

Amanda Mae, born on a day when the smell of roasted meat wafted through the hospital corridors and plates of gooey dessert with canned whipped cream were passed from visitor to visitor, is also the finest cook I know–to eat at her table is a privilege and the food is, every time, fresh, real, imaginative, unforgettable.

Amanda Mae and her daughter in the kitchen

 

So now I’m going to ask her to concoct a recipe for the tender beef on noodles dish–and what of the iceberg lettuce salad?–her version of the meal that set in me the first of many startling recognitions of the cliff’s edge of motherhood.

Recipes to come!