instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#39 On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about "the Tough Stuff" by Jessica Handler

Note: This month’s guest is Jessica Handler. I’m pleased and delighted to have her work appear on this blog. I first met Jessica in 2005, when she was in my Writers in Paradise memoir workshop in St. Petersberg, Florida. Jessica, along with Tracy Crow, and Margaret MacGuiness, had just gotten their MFA from Queens College. And they were so well informed about literary memoir that it was like having three co-teachers in the room. When the workshop ended, it was clear to me that any or perhaps all three would go on to write first-rate literary books.

Jessica’s sensitive and perceptive memoir, Invisible Sisters, was published four years later, in 2009. The narrative is about how, following the death of her two sisters, the writer came to terms with her grief. It's a powerful literary memoir. Jessica hasn't stopped there. She has continued, with great energy and deep commitment, to write, teach, and lecture. Fittingly, her craft essay, “On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs About ‘the Tough Stuff'"--is adapted from her recent book, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins/Griffin, 2013.)

I believe that Jessica’s thoughts, opinions, and perceptions will provide additional guidance on/about the various strategies and approaches that memoirists utilize in order to create literary work out of their deepest sufferings and losses. It’s a subject that informs Meredith Hall’s piece (blog # 38). And because this is a matter I’ve also written about (see blog # 34 and 35), I decided that this was a good time to run Jessica's piece.

MJS

On Endings in Memoir, Particularly in Memoirs about “the Tough Stuff.”
By Jessica Handler

A few years ago, I was talking to friend at a party about the ending he had just written for his film. His protagonist, a little boy, meets his masked hero at last, but he’s sorely disappointed. The hero isn’t the idol he had convinced himself he would find, and after working for almost the entire plot to have his troublesome nerdiness redeemed by proximity to his hero, the little boy is at a loss.

“So that’s not really the end,” the screenwriter said.

“Yes,” I said to the screenwriter. It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” he agreed.

And together we said, “yes, and…”.

We were getting at a truth that’s common to all good writing; that the ending isn’t the moment when the author runs out of writing steam. A satisfying ending begins with that moment of “yes, and” in the plot. In my friend’s screenplay, the ending isn’t that the boy finds his hero, but that the boy begins to change on his own as a result of his efforts to meet his hero. For a memoirist, the ending has something to do with how she or has changed and moved forward in life?

The ‘yes and’ for my memoir, Invisible Sisters, is that, yes my sisters died and I learned to find my voice without them. For a writer, the idea of ‘yes, and’ marks the place on in the story where the renewal for the protagonist – the author- starts to become clear.

Another way to phrase this could be “yes, but,” although I prefer “and.”
“And” has a more positive, forward-moving feeling; not a contradiction, but a continuation. The very existence of a memoir proves that the author survived to tell the tale. A well-made ending is a new beginning; in a memoir about loss, it’s that place on the page when author, and later, reader, is satisfied that the protagonist telling the story can make it from here. A good ending fulfills an implicit promise made in the beginning, whether it’s to tell how the survival occurred, or how the author has grown as a result of the loss.

But no writer or reader wants a sparkling, disingenuous ending that wipes the slate clean of that life-changing sorrow. A generic story with the emotional authority of a smiley-face sticker would not only be false, but a grave injustice to the true story.  Read More 

3 Comments
Post a comment

Blog # 38, Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs

Note: This month's guest is Meredith Hall, who, to my mind is one of our finest literary memoirists. Her emotionally powerful, beautifully rendered memoir, Without a Map, is one of the few literary books to be both a critical success as well as a New York Times best seller. Meredith's craft essay below was originally part of a recent AWP panel entitled, Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

MJS

Trust the Camera: The Importance of Scene Making in Crafting Literary Memoirs
-Meredith Hall

When I give readings of my memoir, an audience member invariably comments, “This must have been such a catharsis for you! Writing this must have been so therapeutic for you! It must have felt so good to get this all out!” My response is always something like this: We cannot write memoir as catharsis, or for its therapeutic effects. Before we are writers, we are human beings living a life. Before we write, we must have worked our way to the deepest parts of our experience. All artists are guides. We are entrusted with walking one step ahead of our readers into the depths. It cannot be our first scouting. We must live inside the inquiry of past events honestly and courageously before we ever offer ourselves as guides. We do not need to be wise. But we do need to have understandings and insights sufficient to ask the most difficult questions. Without that process, which can take years before we are ready for the role of guide, we face two problems: we are writing for ourselves and not our readers; and we are not yet ready to make story of our pasts. It is this idea I would like to explore today: We all come to understanding through story. If we cannot yet control that vital line of communication, we are not yet ready to write our book.

The most dangerous territory for us when we write about intimate events is in exposition—when we say what happened and why and what we think and believe and understand. The problem is that expository writing—this summarizing and explaining and examining—tends to be our go-to place when we write. It is writing that arises from our memory, from our thinking and our feeling about memory. It is intuitive and automatic. And it is satisfying to the writer because we get to set up our story, complete with its history and place and context. We get to explain exactly what happened, and best of all, we get to say how that all felt, and what we now understand about it.

But I am going to suggest that choosing instead the strategy of using “the camera” causes us to rely on the scenes we carry in memory. If we imagine ourselves filmmakers, we find our tool box filled with the specific and demanding tools of the craft of rendering story. But we also earn great freedom from our struggle to make meaning.

We are all adept at watching a film: It opens with a scene—perhaps a young man and woman are leaning against a kitchen counter. We watch them and listen to their small conversation carefully, working at building an understanding of who they are and why we should care. And then the camera lens closes, and reopens—but now we are in a car. We don’t flinch at this. We are absolutely ready for this shift in scene, character, emotional mood. We recognize the driver—the husband we have met. The passenger is an elderly woman. This is his mother, we realize, and they are covering some old emotional territory between them. Then the camera lens closes, and reopens—and we are at a large family gathering. We are ready for this next scene. We are gathering clues. The wife is here, and the husband. There is a lot of laughter. But the camera lens watches the face of the wife, and so we do, too. Why is her expression so tight? What threatens or diminishes her here? There is another burst of laughter, they sit to their meal, and the camera lens closes.

And so the filmmaker constructs, scene by scene by careful scene, her story. And the amazing and beautiful fact is that we “get it” when a good film closes! The “camera” allows us to understand what happened, what motivated the characters, and how we might feel about the story. What an exhilarating art form! The writer can rely on the filmmaker’s camera. But luckily, we are also able to step in periodically and provide our own understandings, to reflect. To offer ourselves as guides, leading our readers to understandings and questions earned through time.

What happens when we don’t trust the camera? Imagine this: We pay our money and sit down in a theater and the film starts. But instead of that man and woman leaning against their kitchen counter, we see the filmmaker, sitting in a chair against a white field, looking directly at us. Instead of a series of scenes to convey the story, he tells us all about the story—he introduces the characters and he describes them and their physical environments and their backgrounds, the history of each character and their interactions. He summarizes—because without the tools of the camera, the ability to make scenes, he has no other option than to summarize. And then he tells us what it all means, because he has no other tool to convey meaning. There our storyteller sits, facing us, earnestly telling us ---everything.

Which film would you rather watch? And the larger question, which film leads you to a deeper and more personal understanding of this story? Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works . Part 1

11/8/14

Note/Update

Because of deadlines and commitments (life-its-own-self, right?) for almost three months I haven't posted anything new on the blog--until today.

In addition to the post below, I've listed links to some very fine sites on/about the essay--Assay, The Humble Essayist, Modern Times, Quotidiana, The Essay Review, and Diagram (See Quick Links below right)

# 34 Confronting Demons, Staring Down Fears: Transforming Our Deepest Misfortunes into Literary Works

This is Part One of a Two Part post. I’ll post Part Two during the first week of December.

1
Prologue
When I was a beginning writer, I attended a summer writer’s conference workshop where one of the students, an undistinguished writer, so I thought at the time, presented a draft about how on a camping trip he was hit by lightening. Unlike his other work, this draft was vivid, compelling and filled with evocative details and specifics, all of which clearly described how terrifying this near death incident was. So much so that you could almost feel his confusions and fears.

The workshop leader, a somewhat acerbic writer, saw this as a teaching moment. He said something to the effect of “…you should all hope that you’ll get hit by lightning some day.” At the time, I was irritated by what seemed to be such a flip, mean spirited, response. I even thought that he was being deliberately perverse. Most of the others in the class had, as I recall, similar reactions.

That goes to show you how much I knew about writing (and teaching) back then. Now, some twenty years later, I think I understand what he was trying to teach us--about writing.

As writers (and teachers) of autobiographical works, we know that our own as well as our students’ most compelling work can (potentially) emerge from the impulse to stare down and write about our most fearsome ghosts and demons. In workshop we refer those demons and ghosts as “hot buttons.”

“Hot buttons” can range from serious misfortunes--traumas like abuse, incest, life threatening illnesses, major disabilities, and devastating losses (like the death of a child, partner, close friend, and/or parent)--to less foreboding, but still deeply painful moments of humiliation, shame, and regret.

But just as writing about emotionally upsetting experiences can generate some very powerful, absorbing work, it can also produce straightforward personal narratives that consist largely of direct confessions and disclosures.

I’ve found that when my students write about deeply unsettling misfortunes, the writing (at least at first) tends to read like a litany of “here’s what happened to me” grievances. And the group’s collective responses are almost always sympathetic with the writer’s difficulties.

It’s a humane impulse, to be sure. Given the fragile nature of the content, those kinds of responses--and understandably so--are honest expressions of compassion and concern. As a result though, sometimes the class turns into a group therapy session. Which creates a dilemma for the workshop leader and students alike.

I say this because those responses—as empathetic as they might be--aren’t really dealing with the writing itself. In that setting, the group, it seems, rarely offers the kinds of specific suggestions--approaches and strategies--that can help the writer think about how to shape his/her thoughts and feelings into the kind of a fully dimensional, well crafted narrative that most of us—novices and experienced writers alike—are (or should be) hopeful of producing.

As writers and writing teachers then, we have to keep reminding ourselves that writing about a life is a very different undertaking than living a life. And this disparity, it seems, is an ongoing problem that many of my students—undergraduate and graduate alike--have to wrestle with.

How then can we create a workshop environment in which, without sacrificing our humanity, we’re still helping fellow writers and would-be-writers to find shape and meaning in their adversities and misfortunes?  Read More 

8 Comments
Post a comment

#33 Teaching (Yourself) What You Know - Guest Blogger, Mary Elizabeth Pope

Note:

A reprint of Mike Steinberg's blog essay (#26 in the Archives), The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction appears on Faye Rapport's blog,
The Roles of Memory...

You can also read an expanded version of this essay in the Solstice Literary Magazine
The Roles of Memory...


Another craft essay, Planning For Surprise: Writing and Teaching the Personal Essay was published by TriQuarterly Triquarterly

Also, One Story, Two Narrators: Reflection’s Role In Writing and Teaching Personal Narratives appears in the current issue of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices appears in One Story, Two Narrators:.......

Earlier and much different versions of both pieces appeared on my blog (# 3), Finding
the Inner Story in Literary Nonfiction and # 19 and 20, Expecting the Unexpected: The Role of Discovery and Surprise in Literary Nonfiction. You can find both in the Archives
blog



08/16/2014
INTRO--TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW - GUEST BLOGGER, MARY ELIZABETH POPE

I've known Mary Beth Pope for many years. She's a first rate personal essayist/memoirist and a passionate, dedicated teacher. Using her own experience as a teacher and writer, in this piece, Mary Beth talks about and illustrates how important it is for students, especially beginning or inexperienced writers, to overcome their fear of disclosing their embarrassments and human flaws and instead to look at those confusions and uncertainties as rich materials for crafting their personal essays and memoirs.

MJS

Blog # 33
TEACHING (YOURSELF) WHAT YOU KNOW--MARY ELIZABETH POPE

Recently, a colleague who knows about my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder gave me Wendy McClure’s memoir “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie,.” As a child I had read the Little House series with a fervor bordering on delusion. I didn’t just love Laura Ingalls Wilder at the age of ten. I thought I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. So when I opened Wendy McClure’s memoir, I laughed out loud at the opening line, which reads: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we travelled to Indian Territory, where Pa built another house, out on the high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?”

Right! I laughed. Oh, wow! This was completely true of me too. I had tried to sit as still as I could in church every Sunday because I knew that “Ma” would demand no less. I had secretly hoped that when I fished with my father in the Chippewa River, I’d get leeches like Laura did in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I even sent a post card to my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island saying that I’d gone “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” that afternoon, at which point a call was placed to my parents in Michigan, asking if I was okay. How funny, I thought, that someone else had experienced these books the same way I had.

Then I stopped laughing and got jealous, the kind of jealous only writers really know, I think, when they realize they’d had a great subject right under their nose all along and never even considered it worthwhile until someone else pounced on it successfully. I mean, that was MY childhood delusion Wendy McClure was writing about. And she did it in such a smart way, too, taking on all the politically problematic elements of the “going West” trajectory of the books, which ten-year-old girls don’t necessarily pick up on, but I had, after my graduate work in postcolonial studies. In fact, in a discussion in one of my graduate classes I’d even brought up the moment in The Long Winter in which Pa dresses up and performs in (yikes, I know) blackface. So what, I wondered, had prevented me from realizing that I could have written a book about the Little House on the Prairie series?

As a teacher of creative nonfiction, I know how to walk my 18-22 year-old-students through their own lives, identifying the subject-worthy elements they may have overlooked, especially when they tell me they are too young for anything to have “happened” to them yet. I have them make lists, do bubble charts, write about their hobbies and obsessions, no matter how small they may seem. And in general, I’m usually successful at getting them to find a subject that both they and their audience will find interesting.

So how is it that I could miss a subject that loomed so large in my childhood?

In thinking this over, I’ve realized that there are three primary barriers that prevent even seasoned writers from recognizing a topic as subject-worthy, and in my own case, it doesn’t matter that, first of all, I know what they are, and second, that I teach other people to overcome these barriers every day as a teacher. They’re still difficult barriers for me to overcome, still the reason I miss things, which makes them all the more important to drag out in the open and remind myself (and you, since you’re reading this) that you have to move past these things in order to access your best work.

The first of these barriers is embarrassment. Now, I talk about embarrassment with my students as a fertile subject for writing. But the truth is, as a human being myself, even if there are things I’m willing to talk about that embarrass me, there are other things, both new and old, that I’m just not willing to face. And if I am honest, the truth is that I’ve always been kind of embarrassed by my obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, because that story about the postcard I sent my relatives about “berry-picking” with “Ma and Pa” has come to feature prominently in my parents’ narrative about realizing their daughter was strange. It was the kind of story I’ve shared only with my husband, a handful of other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans I’d met in graduate school, and the one friend who gave me The Wilder Life. These were the people who already knew about my insomnia, my shut-in tendencies, my awful ungenerous germ phobia, and the fact that, despite my academic credentials, I have never missed an episode of ABC’s The Bachelor in eighteen seasons, even though I know it’s a really, really, really terrible show and violates every feminist impulse I have. Read More 

2 Comments
Post a comment

# 32 On Mentors and Mentoring

Blog # 32

On Mentors and Mentoring

Author’s Note/Disclaimer:

This post, a tribute to a pioneer/mentor woven into a short essay about my personal writing/teaching history, is a departure of sorts from what you’ve previously seen on this blog.

Recently, a friend asked me to write an essay for her blog, an essay on mentors and mentoring--something that’s been on my mind ever since I posted “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” by Donald Murray (see Blog # 30 below). In that post, I mentioned how in the 70’s and 80’s Murray became my writing/teaching mentor. What I didn’t talk about was the contribution he made to the literary genre we’re now calling “Creative Nonfiction,” and how, as a result of his work, I became instrumental in the genre’s emergence and evolution.
MJS

A version of this essay appears on www.overmyshoulderfoundation.org
Dawn Caroll's Over My Shoulder website on/about mentors and mentoring. You can find it under Mentors Come When You're Ready For them, 7/14

A Writer Teaches Writing

1
We encounter our best and most influential mentors, I believe, when we’re ready to receive them. In my case, it happened shortly after I began teaching freshman composition. Back then, in the late 60’s, all comp teachers were required to plan their courses according to an outmoded, prescriptive, syllabus, a syllabus that required teachers to assign their writing students a series of what we used to call “papers:” among them, a narrative, a descriptive essay, an argument, an expository essay, a piece of literary analysis, and a final term paper based solely on library research. This method had been in place since the late nineteenth century. It was, to say the least, a narrow, wrong-headed view of what writing is all about. But back then, there was no other option.

Around that same time, I happened to come across a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by a Donald Murray, someone, who I’d never heard of. In the book Murray was, in effect, advocating an inside/out approach to composing. I was immediately drawn to his philosophy. And it kick-started what would over time become my transformation from writing teacher to teaching writer.

Murray was one of the first writing teachers in this country to suggest that the teaching of writing (and literature) had been, for far too long, the exclusive territory of professional critics, researchers, and literature teachers--many of whom might admire writing and literature, but who themselves did not write.

We didn’t know it back then, but this was the beginning of what would evolve into both the writing process and teacher-as-writer movements, which, from the late 60’s to the early 90’s changed the way that introductory college writing was taught in this and in several other countries.

In addition, it’s my belief that Murray’s work sparked a renewed interest in the teaching of the personal essay, which, to my mind, helped foster the rise of what we’re now calling creative/literary nonfiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Murray’s ideas make as much sense to me now as they did back then. An aspiring writer myself, ever since I was a college freshman, I’d believed that learning to write in prescriptive forms had hindered my own growth as a writer.

I didn’t want to pass that approach on to my own students, so, with Murray’s thoughts in mind, I converted my writing classes into workshops; and, as he suggested, I began writing personal essays-- like those I was requiring from my students.  Read More 

Be the first to comment

# 31 Guest Blogger: Desirae Matherly. Surprise and Subtext

Note: Our guest writer this month is Desirae Matherly. Shortly after I started up Fourth Genre (1999), I first read , and then published, Desirae's work . Back then, we didn't have a name to describe the lyrical, poetic essays that Desirae and a few other writers were sending us. Today, I consider her to be one of our very best writers of the subgenre we're now calling the "lyric essay."

MJS

Blog No. 31

Surprise and Subtext

There are two kinds of surprises I’ve found in the essay, both as a writer and teacher. To begin, there is the matter of finding something to write about. I’ve noticed that so much has changed from the days when I was a student writing for a workshop, to the present, when I work only if I’m inclined to. A more recent development in my writing life has been the solicitation. Being asked to write is an instant motivator. Rarely do I know when I first agree to give a reading or write an essay, what I’m going to write about. But as my deadline approaches, I become attuned to my personal experiences in ways I am normally not aware of. Conversations with friends, thoughts while driving or walking, and my reactions to the media I consume are mined for material. Everything could potentially make its way into an essay, and I am always reminded that all subjects are indeed connected, ala Montaigne.

The “aha” moment is perhaps the most exciting part of the writing process, when the originating idea for an essay presents itself. Usually I’m not in a position to write when that moment comes. I’m hiking in the woods, or commuting to and from campus where I teach. Or I’m in the throes of a discussion with a friend and have to snag spare moments to jot my thoughts down on a napkin or in a notebook if I’m sufficiently prepared to do so. Or I grab my phone and record a voice memo or compose an email to myself. Any writer can relate to the surprise of a fresh idea, or of a solution to a problem that comes at an unexpected juncture between experience and reflection.

When we, as teachers of writing, ask our students to write, we are asking them to find that process by which they are surprised by the urge to write. It’s slightly synthetic, and in the past, when I’ve asked students about the “occasion” behind particular essays, the reason I’ve been given sometimes flounders into, “I had to write something for class.” I’m not ruling out the possibility that sometimes any of us, our student writers included, sit down behind our computer screens and free associate our way into new essays. But aren’t those essays surprising too?

I’ve also noticed that whatever leads us into writing an essay may not be the ultimate subject or theme we work to resolve, once we are into the thick of the process. This leads me to that other surprise I often encounter when essaying; the matter of subtext, which for me is synonymous with the deeper reason behind a piece of writing. It is the repressed anxiety, the epiphany of realization, or the grim mortal insight that underlies whatever surface story we relate. Subtext can be the dirty secret we wish we could keep with ourselves, or it might be the anger we struggle to remove from our lives, only to discover it again unexpectedly when exploring a memory or digressing into a seemingly unrelated theme. Read More 

2 Comments
Post a comment

# 30, The Three Stupidest Things I've Done as a Writer by Donald Murray

Blog # 30

Note: Ever since I turned 60, I’ve been thinking about mentors. That’s mostly because, for the last several years, I’ve been a mentor myself. As I’ve often told my students, I never would have become a writer, much less a teaching writer, had it not been for the support and encouragement of one of my own mentors, Donald Murray. Partly as a result of his generosity of spirit and his willingness to share his knowledge, not just with me, but with literally hundreds of others, I’d hoped that someday I’d get the chance to do for others what he did for me.

I think that turning 60 became a marker for me. Perhaps that’s because for many years Don wrote a Boston Globe weekly column “Over Sixty,” on/about practical matters of writing and teaching writing.

I could go on, but I’d much rather have you read some of Don’s pieces.

Those who visit this blog know that its main concerns are specific matters of genre and craft. But the short essay I chose for this entry “The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer” offers, for the most part, practical advice and wisdom on/about the writing life and what it means to be a working writer.

He passed away eight years ago, but among his eleven books and several poetry collections, Murray’s nine books about writing/teaching are still relevant to all of us who work at this game. In the coming months, along with my own craft essays, I’ll post other short pieces Don wrote. For those who want to know more about his life and work, click on Donald Murray (in yellow) below.

Donald Murray

MJS

Guest Post: The Three Stupidest Things I’ve Done as a Writer
by Donald Murray

1. I believed there was an aesthetic genre hierarchy:

1. Poetry
2. Literary fiction
3. Essay of literary criticism
4. Drama
5. Popular fiction
6. Screenwriting
7. Essay of personal experience
8. Journalism.

At age 77 I realized I am a storyteller who must tell the stories life has given me. The genre must come from the story to be told not the literary ambition of the writer.

2. Not finished drafts of books that could have been published because of lack of faith or deadline.

3. Took seriously the criticism or destructive praise of those who wanted me to write their poems, stories or books not my own.

The three smartest things I’ve done as a writer.

1. Tried to follow the advice of Horace -- nulla dies sine linea {Never a day without a line}– and counted words.
2. Assigned specific tasks to my subconscious which kept writing
during the 22 and1/2 hours I was away from the writing desk.
3. Established deadlines, then met them by breaking long projects
into brief, achievable daily tasks. Read More 

6 Comments
Post a comment

# 29 Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical "I"

Note: Contest Announcement:

Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices announces its 5th annual CONTEST.
$1,000 Fiction Prize; also the $500 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry; and our $500 Nonfiction Prize, donated by Michael Steinberg. Finalists are also offered publication. Solsticelitmag, a Best of the Net publication, promotes its writers in the present and post-publication. Reading fee: $18.00. Deadline: extended to April 19th. www.solsticelitmag.org

This is a very fine online lit journal. The nonfiction prize is well worth looking into. Richard Hoffman, who wrote a recent post (#28) will judge.

MJS

Blog # 29

This post is a reworking of a panel presentation I gave last month at AWP in Seattle. The panel’s title is: The I Or The Eye: The Narrator's Role in Nonfiction

Thoughts From a Sometimes (But-Not-Always) Autobiographical “I”

Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town is a carefully crafted, artfully written book that, for the most part, is about her investigation of a murder that was committed several years ago in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a place the author describes as “an enchanted New England ghost town.”

It’s a convincing, eminently readable story. But what drew me more deeply into the book was the narrator’s curiosity and fascination with the mythology and history of this small New England village. And it’s that pull, that attraction, I believe, that influenced (either consciously or unconsciously) the way in which the author set up her narrative.

For the most part, Dogtown is a combination of immersion journalism and cultural criticism along with some very spare, but important personal remarks and observations, most of which East intermittently weaves into the early parts of the narrative. These pointed disclosures explain some of the reasons why the author felt compelled first to visit and then to write about Dogtown. And to my mind, East’s interest in this place convinced me that she would be a most reliable and companionable guide.

That said, after the first sixty-five pages, the personal disclosures all but disappear from the narrative. And the writer/teacher in me naturally wanted to know why. Later on, when I had a chance to talk to Elyssa, about this, she told me “what makes Dogtown distinct is utterly elusive and I only wanted to be in the book to further illuminate this feeling; to help the reader live this sensation on the page with me.”

Her comments triggered some thoughts that had been nagging at me for quite some time. Why, I’ve been wondering, do some writers place their narrators at center-stage (in other words, as the “I”) while others locate their narrators on the periphery, or off-stage—as reporters, witnesses and/or observers (the E-Y-E)?

Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.
---David Shields

The literary nonfiction that’s most fascinating to me lately is, like Dogtown, a mix of investigation, research, and personal narrative. Four books immediately come to mind; Katy Butler’s, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Kristin Iverson’s, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Rebecca Mead’s biography/memoir My Life in Middlemarch, and Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire.

While I’d love to write the kinds of narratives that, like those authors, marry the personal with larger cultural, historical events and issues, more often than not, my narrators, are variations of the “I,” the persona, that is, who’s at the center of the narrative.

Poet William Stafford comments (inadvertently) on this dilemma when he says, “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now…”

To which I’ll add my belief that the narrators and narratives and we choose are related, at least in part, to matters of disposition, temperament, and sensibility. As well to the specific ways in which we view the world.

Over time, I’ve come to accept that my sensibility is a lot closer to that of a personal essayist/memoirist than it is to a literary journalist or cultural critic. And so, he majority of my narrators fit the kind of persona that Montaigne describes in Essais when he says "It is about myself{e} I write."

Before everyone’s off to the races on that one, let me qualify it. This isn’t an endorsement of narcissistic and/or confessional writing. Quite the contrary. It's closer in spirit to what essayist Scott Russell Sanders refers to as "the singular first person." And in times like these--where the messages we listen to and read are often generic slogans and hash tags, like, “I’m Luvin’ it, “Let’s Go Places,” and What’s in Your Wallet?,“ we especially need to listen to “the singular first person;” the individual human voice more.

Subject in an essay…becomes not the target so much as the sight, the lens through which you see the world
--Steven Church

The majority of my personal essays and memoirs tend to revolve around two “subjects;” baseball is one, and the other is my congenital sense of feeling like a displaced New Yorker in the Midwest.  Read More 

Post a comment

Guest Blogger: Richard Hoffman. More Notes Toward an Essay on Memoir

Blog No. 28

Guest blogger Richard Hoffman is one of our most prolific, accomplished, and versatile authors. He writes fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction with equal dexterity and skill. And in addition to being an astute commentator on/about literary nonfiction, Richard is among the most gifted, accomplished teacher/mentors I’ve had the privilege to work with. MJS

MORE NOTES TOWARD AN ESSAY ON MEMOIR

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his one prose work, Rainier Maria Rilke regrets that no one any longer has an individual death -- "One dies the death that belongs to the disease one has," he writes. Well, we've done this with our lives now, at least those lives recounted in memoir, and marketed via publishers' cumbersome sub-titles. Title, colon: A Memoir of X & Y; My Struggle with X; My Escape from X; My Life with X. How can we find the humanity so abundantly and variously evident in worthwhile books if we consign them to one or another cubby-hole like this? You can no more judge a book by its subtitle than its cover, though people seem to do both. So we read about experience that we think may shed light on our own because we have an event or an illness or a place or a trauma in common with the author, when what we truly have in common is our humanity and, ironically, we might learn more about that from a work that at first seems far from our usual concerns or our own chancy autobiographies up until now.

No matter the particulars of the life recounted, the memoirs I love are grounded in grief. "Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?" Well, everything, I would answer Yeats. Everything remains to say. It is all a celebration and a mourning of what vanishes. Grief, I have long believed, proves we are all one blood, one and the same creature, despite our beautiful and deadly differences. When they came upon Abel, inanimate, unresponsive, gone, Eve and Adam uttered a wail of shock and incomprehension that has never ended, and they became, in that moment, the parents of the human race.

*
Human beings, by definition, look for meaning in their experience. They look to their cultures to provide the categories of discourse that they may use to find meaning. From pull-down menus to the complexities of one’s mother tongue, the making of meaning is thus mediated by precedent and permission. Every memoir is such a precedent and permission for someone.

*
It’s paradoxical that when I sit somewhere and write, whether it’s by a stream, in a library nook, in a cafe, on a park bench, I am completely and utterly unaware of my surroundings, taken up as I am with what I’m writing (which may be about another kind of place entirely) so that when I close my notebook I seem not to have been there at all, but thereafter, whenever I look at what I wrote there the whole place will suddenly be present to me, in detail, including memories of smells and sounds. I might be led to the conclusion that the part of me that entrances itself with looking for words is in fact the oldest self I have, or from another vantage, the youngest, the child who first came to awareness and looked for words for what he saw, this paradox partaking of that quality of childhood that lets the world etch itself completely in memory while the mind’s attention seems wholly taken up with something else.

*
If I’m not reading, if I haven’t had adequate time to read, I can’t write, or write well, at any rate; I feel like a blindfolded man trying to paint.

*
It’s important, from time to time, to reaffirm the primacy of experience over words. We spend the majority of our time in a language web, its patterns defining our humanity, its contours and quality, but we are creatures first, always a bit feral, like cats hunting in a housing project.

*
Writing takes me so long because 90% of what I think is not what I think. It is cleverness, other people’s thoughts, advertisements, platitudes, prejudices, rhymes.

*
Childhood is an autumn forest of memories both deciduous and evergreen. Discreet remembrances change in relation to others which are also changing but at a different pace. The maples, for example, are dramatic and impassioned against a background of amber. A stand of beech is already gray and feathery. And the smell of a wood fire, elusive on the shifting breeze, reaches you again and again, always, it seems, from a different direction. All the while you hear the chunk, chunk of the woodcutter’s axe, and knowing him no friend to your remembering, and recognizing him as the very woodcutter of the stories, you tell of the growth of each tree, both the green and the yellowing. You tell of as much of the forest as you can while you still have time.  Read More 

5 Comments
Post a comment

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the "Real" Truth?

Blog # 27

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

Note: The title of my previous post, # 26, is The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir,” but I see that I’ve only talked about the role of imagination, mostly as it relates to the “truth.” So, this post will be about the relationship between memory and “truth.” If you haven’t read # 26, it might help to take a look at it prior to reading this one.

Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth?

1
When we housed memoir under the umbrella of nonfiction, we took the word ‘nonfiction’ very seriously. {and yet} We act astonished, even dismayed, when we find out the memoiristic voice is doing something other than putting down facts…
--Patricia Hampl

At a writer’s conference several years ago, I read a segment from “Trading Off,” a personal essay/memoir about a turbulent relationship between my adolescent self and a hard-ass high school baseball coach.

During the Q and A, people asked the usual questions: “Did it really happen the way you wrote it?” “Did your coach actually do those perverse things? And the one that almost always comes up: “If you were only thirteen, how can you remember exactly what was said in that scene in the coach’s office? (see #26 for a segment of the scene).

All of these raise some still-being-debated matters about the reliability of memory. For instance; in a reputedly “honest,” “truthful” memoir, doesn’t the writer have to stick to the literal facts of the story? What should memoirists do when they can’t remember the details of an important incident, situation, and/or conversation? Can they embellish and/or invent? And if so, to what end?

2
What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters
--Vivian Gornick

Seasoned memoirists know that their memories don’t always govern the narratives they write. In my own case, memories mainly serve as catalysts for exploration and discovery--specifically, for finding meaning and shaping a narrative. As a teacher and memoirist then, my advice to aspiring memoirists is to write the whole story first, just the way they remember it. Stretch it out; include all the specifics, names, and situations; write down every memory that comes to mind. In other words, make a mess.

Once they’ve done that, they have, in effect, produced a working draft; often a sprawling, cluttered, even incoherent, narrative. In some instances the draft runs much longer than the writer had initially expected. Which, to most experienced memoirists, is exactly what a first draft is for.

I've found that inexperienced writers--undergraduates and adult MFA’s alike--too often believe that those drafts are finished works. So when I tell them that what they’ve written is raw material for a possible, and still undiscovered narrative, many seem puzzled, and perplexed. Some are even offended. “But it’s all true; that’s the way it really happened,” they’ll argue. And so, it's understandable that they’re surprised and disappointed to learn that there’s still a lot more writing and revising left to do.

3
Your memory of your past becomes your past
--Stephen Dunn

Memory, we know, is elusive, tricky, and often inaccurate; in other words, an unreliable resource. For one, there’s the shifting nature of memory itself. A while back my wife and I were watching slides of a European trip we’d taken some thirty-plus years ago. In addition to disputing our different versions of what it felt like to have visited St. Peter’s or the Louvre, or Chartres Cathedral, we were also in disagreement about whom we were with. Were they traveling companions or people that just happened to be part of our tour? Did we visit each place on a single trip? Or, was it two different trips? We don’t remember what our itinerary was; or, even the angle of the sun at the moment we took the slides.

If you’re still skeptical, here are some other things to consider. Language by its very nature rearranges and distorts human experience. And that’s principally true as it concerns memory. For example, after I’d written the memoir about my old coach, that version became more vivid, more real to me than the actual events and memories it was originally based on.

How then, do these concerns bear on how we think about and how we compose our memoirs? Read More 

3 Comments
Post a comment