This month's guest blogger is (once again) Mimi Schwartz. Like Richard Hoffman's June/July post, Mimi's essay, "What's in a Name, Really" is adapted from the same March, 2017 AWP conference panel. Readers might want to take a look at both pieces.
Though Mimi offers a somewhat different point of view, her essay deals with a similar issue: how and why memoirists and personal essayists decide whether to use real or made-up names in their work.
Interested readers might want also want to read Mimi's personal essay/memoir, "Lesson From a Last Day"." The piece, about the circumstances surrounding her husband's death, raises very specific questions about the use of real and/or made-up names. Here's the link. Pangyrus.
"Lesson From a Last Day" also appears in her forthcoming collection When History is Personal. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
# 61, What’s in a Name, Really? by Mimi Schwartz
A man I know, let’s call him Harry, told me recently what others have said over the years: “I’m worried about you being a writer. I’ll end up in your book!” I laughed. His intuition was good. That morning, in fact, I began writing about a being a widow and he, a.k.a. Harry, appeared in paragraph two. “Don’t worry! I haven’t lost a friend yet!” I assured him—and, mostly, that’s true, because I often avoid real names and change identifying details as needed. I once changed my sister Ruth, always litigious, to Cousin Dora in my book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the first time I mentioned Dora, I added this footnote:
"To protect the privacy of friends and relatives I’ve changed names and some locations, but the rest is true, as I see it."
Ruth called me when the book came out, delighted that “I got our family just right.” She was certain that Cousin Dora was really Cousin Anne; I did not correct her.
Most of my readers, I’ve found, don’t care about real names as long as I signal name changes--either with “Let’s call him (or her) XX ” Or with a footnote or with initials. I did get one indignant phone call from my friend, J.L. after she read my essay about having lunch with a close friend Anna, who announces her divorce. “I’ve known you for thirty years,” J.L. said, “and you never once mentioned any friend named Anna!”
“You’re Anna!” I said, “At least part of you.” This was the 1970s when marriages were breaking up left and right. I’d had almost the same conversation with three friends that year, so I combined them for privacy’s sake—and said so in a footnote. “That story was less about Anna and more about me and my marriage.” I said, “ And besides I figured otherwise I’d have no friends left to talk to.” She laughed, saw the light—and we made a date for lunch.
When I write about my immediate family, I use real names because, in memoir, they are my story—and identifiably so. Therefore, I ask those involved to read what I wrote before publication, giving up some editorial power for family peace with those I want to keep in my life. My daughter Julie has corrected her dress size. My late husband Stu once requested that I cut a sentence about his eating Corn Flakes at midnight with a not-to-be-named syrup. All doable requests; in part, because they are reasonable people; in part, because I hear Annie Dillard’s warning in my head as I write: “While literature is an art, it’s not a martial art.” That plus one other rule of thumb has served me well over the years: that whenever I needed to call my husband an idiot, I let him call me a moron, usually through dialogue. Fair is fair.
In Katharine Graham’s Personal History, the rich and powerful sit at her dining room table, people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Warren Buffet—all named. We read her book, even fifteen years later, to have a seat at that table, an inside scoop on what these public leaders thought and said off the record.
Memoirs about the infamous should also use real names. In Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, for example, he names the coach, Tom Feifel, who sexually abused him and other boys on Feifel’s soccer team in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The memoir broke the silence of shame; the boys, as grown men, stepped forward, and Feifel went to jail. His real name mattered to bear witness, to expose—and also, as Richard has pointed out to me, to protect the reputations of the other coaches in Allentown at that time.
But using names should not be the default, I realized when one of my students read an essay in class about her gay roommate-- who had not come out. I started to encourage students to ask themselves: Why use a name when it is harmful and there is no good reason? I urged them to change a name and identifying details as needed, and if that undercuts the story’s authenticity, they should share the draft and get permission. Or switch to fiction which creates a “what if” world that let’s you say: “That’s not you. I made it up!”
My friend, a former journalist for The Washington Post, told me he would never invent names or disguise identifying details. He was writing a book about his Amish neighbors at the same time that I was writing a book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times, about Christians and Jews in my father’s German village before, during and after Nazi times. I had decided to rename the village and the people, and he argued against that. “Truth is truth,” he said. ”Names matter.”
“But if there were no great betrayals and no heroics, why not preserve privacy?” I countered, especially when people, often strangers, trust you. That was my concern, and in my book’s introduction, I said this:
“I realized that my subjects, who were in their seventies or older, kept thinking my book was only about the facts: the who, what, when, where and how of their lives. What they didn’t realize, no matter how often I explained, is that I wanted their personalities to come alive on the page so that readers would meet them and discover as I did: who they were in their memories, who they are now, and how they struggled between those old and new selves.”
Closer to his publication date, my journalist friend had second thoughts. He realized that he might cause trouble for his neighbors in the Amish community and decided to give them anonymity. The book is Plain Secrets; the author is Joe Mackall—and I checked with him before using his name. He read the draft, made two small corrections, and said fine, adding that he also changed all the horses’ names “because everyone knew everyone’s horses.”
I didn’t need Joe’s name for this anecdote. ‘My journalist friend’ would have sufficed for me, so I left the decision to Joe. I don’t always do that. If I need that name to tell my story, I do so. I decide case-by-case each time I write.
I wonder how journalists, and their editors, go through this struggle, especially when quoting everyday people who live in dangerous neighborhoods like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. First and last names are often given (I assume they are real); and even if only the first name is used, some identifying detail is often added: he works in a bakery, she teaches school. Sometimes there is a photo. Why put these people at risk? They are not heads of state; they wield no power; their quotes add local opinion and flavor, but do not shape events.
Take the Afghani resident who was quoted in the New York Times about life under the lawless local militias after the American troops pulled out:
“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimulmah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. - “After U.S. Exit, Rough Justice of Afghan Militias”-March 17, 2015.
It was a front-page news story. What if someone in this militia has a cousin in the U.S. who sends him this article, translated? I would have been content with a quotation from an Abdul or even from “a veteran farmer,” or “a grim-faced student.” I didn’t need the full name to trust what he said, especially when there was no consequence for others. His remarks could hurt no one except himself.
I called a friend, John Timpane, Features Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to check on the criteria for journalists using real names. Do they worry about people like Abdul Ahad?
“It’s a moral dilemma,” John said, “but we can’t be seen as protecting folks. Our policy is to use real names at all times with a rare humanitarian exception. Otherwise newspapers would lose credibility. If we protect one, why not all?”
Besides, as John pointed out, journalists don’t know these people. Maybe Abdul is a good guy, maybe not. “We don’t know someone’s backstory, and we have a deadline in two hours.” That, I realized, is a big difference between journalists and those of us writing memoir, essays, and narrative nonfiction. We do have time to retrieve and assess the backstory.
The other big difference is that memoir and personal essay focus less on the moment and more on the universality of people and events: to recreate rather than to report, blame or accuse. That’s why in my Pangyrus essay “Lessons from a Last Day” (see link below), I didn’t name the hospital where my husband died, identifying it only as “a small New England hospital south of a big one 30 miles to the north.” (Pangyrus) -
Lessons from a Last Day
There were legal concerns, but more important, I felt that naming one hospital would have cleared the others: “That’s X, but we are Y,” other hospitals could say.
My friend, aka Harry, told me recently that the movie “Whiplash,” is based on the band teacher at the high school my kids attended. The writer, Damien Chazelle, played the drums in the band class and the teacher did have a reputation for being severe and tough; but he was not the sadist in the movie. Chazelle calls his script fiction, making no claim that the real story happened that way. But if the real teacher was as mean and terrifying as portrayed, then I say call it nonfiction, and yes, name him.
It matters, not like the name of my friend—who may be Harry, Bernie or Rob.
Mimi Schwartz’s books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times - Echoes of My Father’s German Village, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). A longer version of this essay appears in Schwartz’s forthcoming book of essays, When History Is Personal (University of Nebraska Press, Spring 2018) that explores the way memoir—i.e. 25 key moments of her life—reveals the history, politics, and culture of the world she lives in. Read More
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 60 “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t by Richard Hoffman
Blog # 60
This month's guest is Richard Hoffman, one of our finest, most versatile writers of poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction.
Richard’s craft essay “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, is adapted from a panel talk he gave at the recent AWP conference in DC.
This is an issue, we all know, that both aspiring and practicing memoirists, as well as teachers of memoir, continually wrestle with. Each panelist from “I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t, talked about how, when, and why they decided to use real and/or made-up names in their memoirs. Together, they offered a variety of ethical and writerly reasons and approaches to this issue. In the upcoming months then, I'll post a few more essays adapted from that panel.
Below is Richard Hoffman's thoughtful, honest, take.
Richard Hoffman,“I Didn’t Ask to Be in Your Memoir”: When Real Names Matter and When They Don’t
In 1995 I published a book I had been working on for nearly two decades, the memoir Half the House. After much consideration, which I will describe in a moment, I chose to begin that book not with the usual disclaimer one finds in the front of novels, but with what might be called a reclaimer, since it was my purpose to reclaim all manner of lost things, among them the right to be the protagonist of my own story. It spells out the kind of not-fiction it is and sets forth the rules I followed.
“This is not a work of fiction. It contains no composite characters, no invented scenes. I have, in most instances, altered the names of persons outside my family. In one instance, on principle, I have not.”
Now I believe that in a memoir, memory is largely imagination in service to the facts as far as they can be known, so what does it mean to place a real toad in an imaginary garden, to borrow an arresting emblem from Marianne Moore?
Well — and some of you know this — the man I named in that book, a youth sports coach named Tom Feifel, was a serial child rapist who, largely because of the book, was brought to trial, convicted, and some months later, murdered in prison. It was determined that he had had over 400 victims during his long career in my sports-obsessed hometown.
But here’s the thing: I had never intended to use his real name, not during all the years of working on that book. I was not writing for some cathartic or vengeful purpose; in fact, the book, set in an industrial town in Pennsylvania, is about my boyhood in a Catholic blue-collar family with two of my brothers afflicted with a deadly form of Muscular Dystrophy; the account of the sexual assault takes up five pages of the book.
Five pages. It wasn’t important in some sensational way, it was important because it is a secret feature of that kind of boyhood. But as the book moved toward publication, certain ethical questions arose, and they weren’t the ones you might expect.
Right before I turned in the book, I reinserted the coach’s real name; again, with no incendiary motive, but with a growing sense from my few readers, my agent, my editor, of how explosive such an accusation might be. And it occurred to me that there were many, many men volunteering their time with kids, mentoring boys growing up in a pretty brutal place, and I didn’t want to start a witch-hunt, didn’t want to cast a pall of suspicion on the lot of them. Besides, he was simply undeserving of protection, and I determined that I did not owe him silence, did not have to keep his secret. I also came to understand that it was not him I was protecting: I wanted to hide in the realm of art, I wanted to say it, but say it in a way that would not leak out of the book and into the real world, into my real life. I was scared. Every time I thought about it unmediated by some kind of literary aura, I felt 10 years old again. And so, “the reclaimer.”
Ah, but then came the lawyers, the publisher’s lawyers. About a month before publication, I received a letter from Harcourt Brace’s attorneys with a list of names of certain persons mentioned in the memoir from whom I would have to get releases. They included my father, my brother Joe, my aunt — and coach Feifel.
I left for Pennsylvania with the releases in hand. I made them up—three options and a place for a signature:
o “I have read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I have been given the opportunity to read the manuscript of Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House, and I have declined. Nevertheless, I have no objection to its publication.”
o “I do not consent to the use of my name or other identifying characteristics in Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House.”
My brother had read an earlier draft of the manuscript and was helpful in setting me straight about a few dates and other details I’d gotten wrong. He checked the first box and signed. My father and my aunt didn’t want to read it and checked the second box. Both of them read the book after its publication. I was not going to be able to ask the coach, Tom Feifel, to sign such a document, no way, no how, even if he was alive. I knew, however, that he had been arrested twice before for molesting young boys, so I went to the local newspaper looking for records, hoping that would satisfy the publisher’s lawyers. There was a file with his name on it, but whatever had been in there had been removed. I resigned myself to looking for records at the public library the next day, and if I failed, the courthouse.
When I got back to the house, my father handed me a piece of paper with a couple of phone numbers on it. Both were men he knew who had coached with Feifel. “Why don’t you try calling these guys and see what they know?”
The first call was all I needed. I was able to get the year of one of Feifel’s prior arrests, along with the name of the arresting officer. I called him as well. Although retired, he remembered the case well. Both men were angry that Feifel had been sentenced to probation and were willing to put their recollections in writing. The retired officer agreed to send me a copy of the police report.
It was enough to allow the book to go forward, as long as I was willing to amend the contract to indemnify Harcourt Brace, which I did.
And so, this question is not a simple one — it turns out that there are multiple stakeholders if you will; there’s of course you the author, there’s the person you have drawn as a character, that person’s family and loved ones, the real-world community you are both a part of, the record, the public record, and others whom you don’t yet know, like the 400 boys and men who came forward after the arrest, like the literally thousands of men on 5 continents I have spoken to since the book’s publication who told me the book helped heal them of shame and encouraged them to speak up.
So I am suggesting to you NOT that I was so big and brave, I’m suggesting that what happened contains a lesson and that lesson is this: most of our concern about naming names, a concern which we couch in ethical terms, is rationalization and the result of a shaming injunction, a sneering gaslighting, that serves to protect people who do not deserve protection: why make hoods for nightriders? Why pixelate the faces of hatred? Naming atrocities and the people who commit them is the beginning of justice.
In the second memoir (and there will soon be another to complete the trilogy) Love & Fury, I explored the story of my current family, including my wife and grown children and then infant grandson, all of whom are represented undisguised.
This offered a different set of issues, and I chose to adhere to a hard line between writing and publishing. In fact, if there’s any advice I have to give, it is to keep those two processes as separate as possible. I wrote with little concern for how my wife, and my kids, would react; at least I tried to. What made that possible was the deal I had struck with all of them, that when I was finished — not while I was writing — I would allow them to read and respond and that I would take their concerns to heart. I did not promise them veto power.
These are people I love and who love me, so I felt on pretty solid ground, even writing about dark moments, failures, mistakes. At the eleventh hour, my family became my collaborators, arguing their differing versions of events, wondering if I might just shift the emphasis a bit in one of the scenes, if I could just choose a different adjective here and perhaps include a mitigating circumstance they felt I’d omitted. It was not easy conversation, but it was built on trust, and in fact the process strengthened that trust. By the time the book was published the conversation was all about who would play who in the movie!
So, it’s a question of tact relative to your own continuing friendships, alliances, and family relationships, tact and trust, and in fact this respect for how the people in the story see themselves, makes for a more emotionally truthful book. What’s more, most people, in my experience, object to things they construe as assaults on their vanity, things that make them wince or smart, and not, surprisingly, to their failures so long as those failures are part of a story that honors their struggle.
To portray someone trying to do right, to stay afloat, to ride out the storm, grants that person dignity, agency, character. People want their struggles to be seen. People want to be visible, and not only in studio portraits with a row of fake books and a flag in the background, they want to be visible and appreciated for their struggle. They want to be respected: look at that word’s entymology! They want to be seen, given a second look, appreciated.
RICHARD HOFFMAN is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: A Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College
olsticelitmag.org/five-questions-for-richard-hoffman-on-memory-race-and-family Read More
Blog # 59 The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative by Guest Blogger Lad Tobin
Note: This month's guest is writer/teacher Lad Tobin.
Lad's craft/teaching essay, "The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative" grew out of a 2015 NonfictionNow panel entitled "The I and the EYE: How Writers of Literary Nonfiction Choose Their Narrators."
Writers of literary nonfiction all know that choosing the right narrator/persona is a crucial decision. It's an issue that several contributors to this blog have written about. That decision is an important concern as well to those of us that teach classes in literary/creative nonfiction.
Some writers, we know, will place their narrator(s) at center-stage, (the internal, autobiographical "I"); others, whose narrators are witnesses, observers and/or reporters, tend to favor more distant vantage points (the "Eye").
Lad's essay describes how he discovered the right fit, the "multidimensional I," the narrator, as Lad describes it toward the end of the essay, that is "... most able to both tell and interpret the evolving narrative."
The Third I: Character, Narrator, Author in the Personal Narrative
Years ago I published a personal essay, “You Virtually Can’t Get There from Here,” about the problems I have trying to reconcile my expectations of travel with my actual experiences. Here’s how the essay started:
I am at a writer’s conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Looking around the room at the opening session, I suddenly realize I do not know a single soul and I have made a terrible mistake coming here. I had looked forward to the trip for months, had imagined it would be a turning point in my career, had fantasized about meeting people who had read—and loved!—my work. But now it hits me: I have been as naive as a schoolboy, as naive in fact as the schoolboy in the James Joyce story who spends his week waiting to go to a fair to buy a gift for a girl who, he suddenly realizes, doesn’t even know he exists.
In this one moment, I see it all: I will be lonely and miserable for the whole conference. Determined to prove that prophecy correct, I talk to no one for the first days, eat every meal on my own, and spend my time resenting all the people who seem to be having a hilariously good time.
Looking back at that essay now, I find myself wondering who exactly is that “I” sitting in that room acting so neurotically self absorbed. Of course, in a very real sense, he is me: I did attend that conference and did feel those embarrassing emotions. But I find myself wanting to say that he is only me at a particular point in time and from a particular point of view and in the role of performing a particular service in a particular essay. That’s a lot of qualifiers, I know, but to try to sort out the ongoing confusion about the nature and trustworthiness of first-person narrators, we are going to have to go beyond the usual binary categories, such as reliable/unreliable, now-narrator/then-narrator, person/persona.
Some of that confusion is built in: as writers of personal essays, we want our readers to trust that the “I” on the page is a real person writing about real events, but we also want to be granted the poetic license to craft a coherent and satisfying text. Given the inherent difference between the randomness and banality of life, and the need for dramatic tension and coherence in a well-made essay, a certain amount of selective editing is inevitable. (Joan Didion calls this process “the imposition of a narrative line on disparate events.”) My sense, though, is that we do little to help explain this tension when we as writers bristle at readers who question the accuracy or trustworthiness of our narratives, but bristle just as hard when those same readers assume there is no gap between the “I” in the essay and the “I” who crafted the essay.
Meghan Daum, for example, bemoans “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” the assumption by readers and critics that they know what a writer or musician is really like based on her first-person confessions. This assumption, according to Daum, equates the self on the page with the self who created the work and, thus, “speaks to the inability of most people to tell the difference between putting yourself out there and letting it all hang out.” Speaking on Mitchell’s behalf, as well as on her own, Daum seems exasperated that readers could ignore the art of the confessional essay and the constructedness of the confessional self. The revelations she offers in her essays, she says, “are not confessions. Not even close. They’re events recounted in the service of ideas. My aim was to judiciously choose and arrange episodes that might build upon one another and add up to something interesting enough to warrant the time it takes to read about them.”
I certainly understand and share much of Daum’s frustration: I have often felt the urge to remind readers that the neurotic, self-absorbed “I” in my essays is not exactly the same “I” who wakes up in my bed and in my body each morning. To be sure, I share plenty with that first-person narrator: I also am an anxious over-thinker who has complicated relationships with his parents, who has spent lots of time in therapy, who loves New Orleans music, Indian food, sports statistics. At the same time, since I’m aware that no real person is coherent enough to hold an essay together or compelling enough to hold a reader’s attention, I am always amping up some parts of my personality while tamping down other parts. As Philip Lopate explains, for a personal essay to work, a writer has to be willing and able to turn him- or herself into a “literary character.”
Most writers and teachers of personal narrative have long relied on binary categories—author/literary character, person/persona, then-narrator/now-narrator—to make clear the distinction between the “I” who is essentially the character in the action of the narrative and the “I” who is the essayist reflecting on that action. It’s a helpful distinction because it reminds readers and writing students that it’s not enough to just write down what happened: a writer of personal essays needs to construct an “I” capable of playing, moving between, and ultimately integrating the narrative of action she is constructing and the narrative of thinking about those actions.
However, in trying to clarify that distinction, we often overlook the equally real and important third “I” of the personal essay: the one who has created both of the other two. It may be tempting to think that, while the acting “I” is a literary character, the reflecting self is the writer’s true or present self, but the truth is that the reflecting self on the page is no less a construction than the acting self (we might also call these the narrating and narrated selves). That is, both are representations of the self that we as authors employ to play particular roles for particular purposes.
The problem, then, in describing the first-person speaker in a successful essay—and particularly in a segmented essay that moves between times and perspectives—is that the seemingly simple “I” is standing in for so many different parts of the self. Fortunately, though, creating and embodying a multidimensional “I” (and reading and making sense of someone else’s multidimensionality) is less complicated in practice than in theory, since we are all used to embodying different roles and perspectives throughout the day. In other words, we are all expert at moving back and forth between our past and present selves, our professional and personal selves, our more heartfelt and more ironic selves.
It is this expertise that allows readers to understand that the “I” in a personal narrative represents someone making a truth claim (“What I am telling you now actually happened to me”) and putting on a performance (“But I’m telling you about this experience in a way that amps up its entertainment and/or its polemical value”). What allows these potentially conflicting roles to successfully coexist is, first, a strategic moving back and forth between showing and telling, between scenes in which the narrated “I” is in the action and scenes in which the narrating “I” stands to reflect on the action or sometimes even to reflect on the reflection. In the essay about my travel experiences, for example, I move between confessions about my neurotic, self-absorbed emotions to reflections about the absurdity, significance, and implications of those emotions. It’s clear, of course, that the “I” in the action knows less than the reflecting self, but it’s equally clear that the reflecting self, who seems only to be figuring things out on the page, knows less than the author who created “him.” By juxtaposing one with the other, I am able to both tell and interpret the evolving narrative. Similarly, if an essay is well constructed and the various “I”s are well developed and successfully integrated, a reader is able to accept the essay as both a truth claim and a work of art.
This, too, sounds more complicated in explanation than it is in practice. We all grow up expert at knowing that the “I” who is telling us a story both is and isn’t the literal person who is speaking to us or whose name is on the title page. In The Uses of Enchantment, his book about how classic fairy tales can help young children make sense of the world, Bruno Bettelheim explains that from a very early age children experience certain magical elements of a story as symbolically rather than literally true. He gives an example from “The Three Little Pigs,” in which the pigs who build the houses out of sticks and straw are eaten (at least in the traditional version) while the brick-building pig survives. Bettelheim argues that, while this story may seem overly violent or traumatic to be appropriate for children, even a very young child understands on an unconscious level that the three pigs are actually three stages of the same pig. Given this understanding, Bettelheim, argues, the child can simultaneously experience the fear and sadness of the loss of the first two pigs and then the joy and relief of their ultimate survival as parts of the third pig.
I’m suggesting that readers of personal essays experience a multidimensional “I” who is simultaneously character, narrator, and author in this same way—as different roles or stages of a single person. For this reason, I think we ought to be less critical of readers who assume that the “I” on the page is also the “I” who authored the essay. After all, we have asked our readers to trust and believe us, to suspend disbelief when we amp up or tamp down parts of ourselves. It seems a little mean-spirited then to turn around and say, “Oh, you thought that ‘I’ on the page was actually me? How naive!”
Again, I am not exempting myself from any this. As I reread that introduction about my narcissistic fantasies at the writer’s conference, I feel an urge to add a footnote: “I am not quite—or always—this neurotic in my everyday life.” But I realize that a footnote of that sort not only would make my essay less entertaining, it would also make it more pedantic. Readers who are willing and able to enter into our essays and accept the multidimensional “I” that we have constructed on the page as real should not be chastised for their naivete, they should be thanked for their trust.
* This essay originally appeared in TriQuarterly (May 2016)
Lad Tobin’s personal essays have appeared in The Sun, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, New Orleans Review, Full-Grown People, and The Norton Reader. He is the author of two books of creative nonfiction about teaching creative nonfiction: Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants and Writing Relationships. He teaches at Boston College. Read More
I take some special pride and pleasure from the fact that this month's guest, Tom McGohey, is a former student that showed up in an introductory writing class I taught several decades ago.
Tom's craft essay, "Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth?" addresses a concern that, over time, has become something of a running motif on this blog. The matter I'm referring to is what Tom describes below as "the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life." In other words, the question he's raising is this: "...are we our words?"
In the piece, McGohey offer us several different examples of what he means: excerpts from the works of journalist Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, as well as illustrations and commentary from both himself and other writers. Tom considers all of this in relation to what he refers to as the larger connection “between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates."
#58 Who's Minding Your Inner Loudmouth? by Tom McGohey
It’s 11p.m., do you know what your inner loudmouth is doing? Is he popping off again? Is he making you look good or is he embarrassing you? Should he be encouraged, celebrated, awarded a prize for his convictions, his swaggering voice, or should he be stifled, silenced, erased from the pulpit of his page, or if preserved, stashed in a folder and buried beneath a pile of embarrassing pronouncements at the bottom of a drawer labeled, “False Starts & Other Obnoxious Railings That Once Sounded Like a Good Idea”?
“Inner loudmouth” is a term Ben Yagoda uses in his splendid book on style, The Sound on the Page, to describe the persona writers create (release? unchain? de-gag?) when they compose. The term evokes image of an overly precocious imp confined in your chest, kicking at your sternum, demanding entrance to your esophagus, and access to your tongue, where he will perform a buffoon’s ballet, reciting outrageous lines you wouldn’t dare utter yourself in polite society. He can be useful that way, offering candid, sometimes provocative, even offensive opinions and images, swirling and looping across the page like graffiti that, in some circles, could be considered great art, and in others, juvenile scrawlings that deface the landscape.
Yagoda explores the relationship between a writer’s persona and his or her personality in real life: are we our words? Would we acknowledge, much less embrace, our inner loudmouth outside the privacy of our homes, beyond the door of our writing rooms?
For example, consider the case of Joe Flaherty, a columnist for The Village Voice, in the 70s, where, upon the death of former heavyweight boxing champ, Sonny Liston, he published a journalistic eulogy titled “Amen to Sonny.” While readily conceding the seedier side of Liston’s life – former mafia thug, ex-con – Flaherty also expresses sympathy for a man used and abused by a corrupt sport and in a larger cultural conflict over the evolving role and image of a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Flaherty loves to skewer what he considers the pious and often hypocritical pronouncement of self-righteous guardians of liberalism. That attitude is on full display in the following passage describing the leadup to Liston’s title fight with then champion Floyd Patterson:
“He [Liston] arrived at a time when hopes of integration were high in the air, and Patterson and Ralph Bunche were everybody’s prototypical black men. I can’t recall anyone I know (with the exception of the Philadelphia-based writer Jack McKinney) who publicly wanted Liston to beat Patterson for the heavyweight championship. In Patterson’s corner were clustered Jimmy Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, and the NAACP (which didn’t even want Patterson to give Liston the fight because of what Liston would do to the ‘Negro image’). As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys. Like the song, ‘Night Train,’ to which he jumped rope, he was that underground fear we wouldn’t face – the menacing black man who invaded the subway of our souls at four in the morning. In short, Sonny was a badass nigger.”
That last line about knocked me out of my chair. Man oh man, you couldn’t get away with that today, I thought. Hell, I can’t believe he got away with it then!
In the preface to his collected columns, Chez Joey, Flaherty writes, “A lesson for young journalists: in your early rounds forget the body and go for the head.” A pugilistic metaphor that sums up Flaherty’s persona in writing and in life; a perfect match of form and content, style and personality, Yagoda would probably say. Not much difference, if any, between, style and personality of Flaherty, who was a NYC dockworker and who as a reporter for “Village Voice” sometimes brawled, in print and with fists, with subjects, and who managed the mayoral candidacy of Norman Mailer, another brawler in word and deed. Flaherty certainly goes for the head in “Amen to Sonny,” not Liston’s head or Patterson’s, though he bloodies the latter’s nose with sarcastic jabs, but the collective head of boxing and liberals, white and black, who saw the match as a Manichaean bout between “good” and “bad” Negroes.
But what are we to make of that line about “badass nigger[s]”? Strictly in terms of structure, it’s a well-crafted paragraph, suggesting Flaherty knows exactly where’s he’s headed and he can’t wait to get there and smack pious hypocrites and his readers with such a provocative, if not outright offensive line. But you also get the sense of a writer overly pleased with his own sarcasm, a loud-mouth show-off seduced by his own persona who likes to pontificate himself. In this case, has the bravado of the persona exceeded the judgement of the craftsman?
To answer that question some historical and sociological context in matters of race is required. Unbeknownst to me, the term “bad / badass nigger” has had a fairly long and complicated history in America, particularly in sports, stretching back to days of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champ in early 1900s who infuriated whites with his mocking, defiant attitude. Scholars such as John Hoberman, author of Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, and Gerald Early, author of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, have written extensively about the term. James Baldwin uses it in his powerful essay “A Report from Occupied Territory.”
So, “bad / badass nigger” is an acknowledged trope by both black and white writers, though with different connotations depending on context. In general, though, the term refers to a fearsome black man who threatens or intimidates or diminishes white authority. Does this semantic precedent justify or excuse a white sports writer using it? Do we assume that Flaherty is consciously employing a sociological term, or even subconsciously using it, as if the term were a fairly common one, at least for those who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about black people, whether athletes or intellectuals or average citizens being rousted and beaten by racist cops? Does Flaherty assume his readers will recognize this trope? If so, is he assuming too much knowledge in his audience? Would Village Voice readers of 70s have recognized the term, much less its complex connotations?
Let’s give Flaherty the benefit of doubt and say he was familiar with progressive criticism of race relations in America, may have even read Baldwin, whose essay was first published in The Nation in 1966. As a native New Yorker and a reporter he was certainly aware, on some level, probably more detailed than typical urban dweller, of grim conditions in “occupied” Harlem. Even a casual reading of a handful of Flaherty columns quickly reveals that, for all his graphic and smartass outrage and mockery, he was a very well-read man. His pieces are littered with high-brow literary references and metaphors. Regardless. Let’s grant him a higher intention than shock or knee-jerk, juvenile banter / taunting. Does he go too far? Is it enough to assume, or hope, that audience will hear the ironic quotation marks around inflammatory language? Whatever his persona – satiric and highly literate, cultural commentator or rude-crude, blunt troublemaker – when does a writer’s persona go too far? When should a writer stifle his “inner loudmouth” clean up his ethos for the sake of a less offensive pathos or logos?
My purpose here is not to defend or condemn Flaherty for offensive language, but to consider the connection between a writer’s persona and the cultural context in which that persona is formed or operates.
Indulging one’s inner loudmouth is seductive, at times even addictive, potentially leading to offensive or just plain obnoxious prose that undermines content. I need look no farther than my own writing for evidence of this mercurial “condition,” shall we call it, for it does suggest a disorder one might find in the official Psychiatric DSM. Admittedly I often write first and foremost to entertain myself, not for rhetorical effect or for “meaning” or message. I’m ethos first and logos last; hell, at times I’m all ethos, and what little logos I consciously craft is swallowed up by my loudmouth ethos: my style, caterer of my persona (or vice versa?) devours my content. The inner loudmouth thinks that most anything that tumbles out of its oral cavity is by default endlessly witty and a benefit, socially and morally, to anyone who reads it. (I’ve been living in the South for 30 years, and have lost track of the number of times my partner, God love her country-girl soul, has made excuses on my behalf for bewildered folks unsure of how to take some snarky comment: Don’t mind him, that’s just his smartass Yankee sense of humor. Email correspondence, I find, is particularly problematic for me, as I refuse to use emoji’s to explain my intentions; such reading aids strike me as a sniffy kind of post-traumatic trigger-warning: Too little, too late. )
I’ve had this problem with editors of literary journals, as well. In response to a personal essay I wrote about a guy so protective of his cat that he mounts a mission to destroy a neighborhood cat bullying his precious pet, one editor wrote that though they liked the piece, they weren’t sure how to take the tone: Was it supposed to be absurdist? Hell yes, I wanted to shout. Isn’t it obvious? Apparently not. An editor at another journal said the essay had provoked a contentious debate among the staff: some found it poignant, others found it offensive. To which I thought, Can’t it be both? A tension between tones of sympathetic and disturbing was the effect I was working for. Frankly, I thought it was the strength of the piece. So far no editor has embraced my hybrid-aesthetic of sincerity and sarcasm. The piece remains, sadly, unpublished. And I’m left to consider the distinct possibility that what I lack in my writing at times is a deft sense of touch and proportion. You can do anything, as long as it works, right? Right?
To my knowledge, there’s no template for touch in writing. It’s kind of like phrasing for a singer: you either got it or you don’t. I recognize it in other writers, and I’ve gotten to a point that what I admire most in any writer is the ability to modulate tone or, as Yagoda says, “the sound on the page.” But Yagoda does offer a pretty good taxonomy of style in the Chapter “Tendencies of Style”: “Competence, Iconoclasm, Extroversion, Feeling, Single-mindedness, Tension, and Solicitousness.” I would argue that any number of these qualities, separately and in combination, apply to Flaherty. When he calls Liston a “badass nigger,” he’s exhibiting iconoclasm, extroversion, and feeling. Solicitousness, however, does not seem high on his list of concerns, although he does make concerted efforts throughout the column to generate sympathy for Sonny, arguing that “he should be judged in context. He was better than the sport he practiced and the men who rule it. In fact, he was one of boxing’s most legitimate sons. When greed, hypocrisy, and corruption complete their ménage a trois, a Sonny Liston will always be plucked from the breach.” So the tension for Flaherty is that between iconoclasm and solicitousness. His sense of touch, stinging though it may be, lies within that tension.
Yagoda states, “Beware ‘Biographical Fallacy’: the assumption that you know a person when you know only his or her writing.” And illustrates the point with Adam Gopnik’s “Law of the Mental Mirror Image: we write what we are not. It is not merely that we fail to live up to our best ideas, but that our best ideas, and the tone that goes with them, tend to be the opposite of our natural temperament.”
Sounds good to me. Except according to Wilfred Sheed, writing in the introduction to Chez Joey, such laws did not apply to Flaherty:
“The man you meet on the page is precisely the one you meet in real life, and not some literary persona cooked up for the occasion. … When Joe does strike a pose, it is strictly for laughs or some other esthetic effect. His major distinction, in a field where showing off is mandatory and where marginal idiosyncrasies are cultivated like sick plants, is that he is always himself. … Joe’s contribution to New Journalism is a strict emotional precision, based on a lacerating self-awareness. … All this could be pretty painful if it wasn’t so funny. Joe may be cursed with the liverish eye of a satirist, but he is twiced blessed with the heart of a clown. … He isn’t mad at anybody, only operatically outraged, and this is the great strength in his writing. Yet his laughter can be as merciless as another man’s rage.”
So where does that leave us? I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. In the matter of giving voice to one’s inner loudmouth, I prefer to defer to the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Modern Essay”: “Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.”
Despite flunking two of three required freshmen writing courses, Tom McGohey went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at UNC-Greensboro, and to teach Composition and direct the Writing Center for twenty years at Wake Forest University. He is retired now, living in Southwest Virginia. His work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Thread, and Sport Literate, and has been selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is pleased to have the opportunity to submit another assignment, forty years later, for the old mentor who inspired him to write while making up one of those F’s. Read More
Note: Nicole Walker's short piece on/about the differences between how journalists and writers of creative nonfiction use facts is particularly timely, especially in light of the current dispute about what distinguishes "alternative" facts from "real" facts.
Actual Facts is an essay that should appeal to the genre's teachers, writers, and editors.
#57, Actual Facts, Nicole Walker
I just got back from a quick trip to see my family over President’s Day Weekend. We sold our car to my nephew and drove it up to him. As usual, it was super fun to see my family although they are much better at having fun than I am, so I came back exhausted. Plus, traveling on the weekends during the semester is plain impossible. I had to work both of the days I was there, finishing some revisions to an essay coming out in March. The essay is actually about my sisters and how they are politically like-minded but go about persuading people in different ways. My sister Paige teaches AP Environmental Biology at the public school in Salt Lake and persuades her students to pay attention to gametes. My other sister, Valerie, is the National Sales Manager for a TV Station in Boise. She persuades people by reminding them they are beautiful. Neither of them has a huge agenda, but I’d argue that paying attention to the world around you and to be kind would be their combined philosophies, although they advocate for those ideas in different ways.
I was writing about their similarities and differences for this essay that I asked them to read and they were like, “No, that’s not true! I did not teach 8th grade for four years, I taught it for one year.” And “No, I didn’t say that your boobs remind me of turtles. Frogs. It was frogger boobs.” So I emailed the editor and asked him to change those details and my sisters rolled their eyes as they usually do when I say I write “creative nonfiction” because they tease me that “creative” means I can make up anything I want.
I tell them no, that’s why I had them check the essay. They don’t like it when I lecture so I didn’t tell them the deeper definition of creative nonfiction. I tell my students the nonfiction uses facts as a springboard to creativity. I also tell them, we’re not journalists. We aren’t going for objectivity. We’re actually going for subjectivity. The difference between creative nonfiction and journalism is that you want bias in your creative nonfiction. That said, it’s your responsibility to define and be clear with your bias. You can do that several ways. You can begin with a disclaimer. You can write in short, poetic, syncopated lines. You can use research and cite your sources in a regular font and then imagine the effects of that research in an italicized font. You can use the word “perhaps” or “maybe” or the subjunctive or conditional tense. You can, like John D’Agata, begin your book About a Mountain by listing a numbers that the senators used on C-SPAN to show how truly unfacty numbers can be. Senators pull any number out of the air to suit their agenda to argue about transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain: “Yucca’s projected total cost of $24 billion” and “$27 billion” and “$38 billion” and $46 billion” and $59 billion” and “at least 60 billion” and “100 billion” and “too much” and “we have no other choice.” The whole book is about the facile way people use numbers and statistics as if numbers emblematize the purist meaning so when John D’Agata uses numbers fast and loose, he’s doing it within an established context of fast and loose.
I steer my students away from writing fast and loose with the facts not only because they lose credibility but also because there is something very empowering about facts. You can rely on facts to provide you the biggest bounce to your creativity. I just wrote an essay on the difference between Australia’s possums and the United States’ opossum. What is more exciting than the difference between that O?
In the media, we have descended into ‘alternative facts’ which means now I have to go around and defend my genre all over again. Creative nonfiction isn’t alternative facts. It isn’t even using facts creatively. It is using facts to spur imagination. That imagination is saturated in bias but that bias is noted in every word choice, font, disclaimer, verb, and voice. All people have biases. Here are mine, we say. Alternative facts pretend there are no biases. Alternative facts claim real journalism. But real journalism doesn’t use the I. It weighs and investigates. It informs and substantiates. It is the foundation and to build or create or make anything from it, it has to be stable.
NICOLE WALKER is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July. Read More
Blog # 56 On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again by Ana Maria Spagna, Guest Blogger
Note: This month’s guest, Ana Maria Spagna, is a wonderful writer and teacher of literary nonfiction.
At the River Teeth Writer’s Conference last spring, Ana Maria, myself, Pat Madden, and Hope Edelman were on a panel entitled “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” Several months ago, I posted my panel talk-turned-essay ( Archives, June 2016) on this blog. And this month, I wanted to run Ana Maria’s piece--also from that same panel.
In one way or another, the notion of repeating ourselves is something that most writers-- especially we autobiographical writers—must contend with. When, for example, are we recycling old materials and when are we re-seeing with fresh eyes? When are we self-plagiarizing and when are we digging more deeply into issues and ideas we’ve covered but haven’t yet fully explored?
In her essay, Ana Maria writes about how, in the process of working on what she calls “a kid’s novel,” she discovered that she was writing about the same material she’d already covered in her previous book Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus--a work of literary journalism/personal-cultural criticism.
Once you’ve read the piece, you’ll understand why Ana Maria says that she was initially embarrassed by that discovery; and why, by the end of her essay, she is able to write: “So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it.”
On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again
Essayist Steven Church likes to say that each of us has a “secret engine” in our writing, the burning question or experience that pops up again and again in our work. Even when we think we’ll never write about it, we do. Even when we think we’re done writing about it, we’re not.
My dad died when I was 11 years-old. The event shattered my world, of course, but I very rarely spoke of it. By the time I turned thirty I’ll bet I’d only told a handful of people, and I’d told even fewer how he died: he went out jogging one night, had a heart attack, and fell on the sidewalk. I certainly had no intention of writing about it.
Then, one day, I did. Without knowing it. I started writing about a crush I had on a running coach when I was a very little girl. The opening of the piece—one of the few I’ve ever written that kept its original opening from first draft on—has a playful near-fictional feel. Only it wasn’t fiction, and as I wrote, my dad kept creeping in: how he quit smoking to start jogging with me, how when I quit running, he built me a high jump pit. Each time he appeared on the page, I’d get freaked out and put the essay back in the proverbial drawer, so it took me over a year before I was able to let to the story unfold. Here’s a passage from the near the end. During the medal ceremony at the high jump state championship for fifth grade girls, I’m once again thinking about my old running coach.
"There, I thought, I did it without you. See! See! I did all by myself. I thought this even though it was patently untrue. And while I was thinking this, right in the middle of it, my dad jumped over the railing. He vaulted actually, like a younger more agile version of himself, and he sprinted across the track nearly interrupting a race in progress. He lifted me in his arms and spun me around as if I’d scored the winning touchdown I remember it clearly and I remember it with something like regret, something like shame, for the way that memory, like love, sometimes clings to all the wrong things."
In the end, of all the essays in my first book, Now Go Home, “Long Distance” is the one that holds up best, and after writing it, I had this self-satisfied feeling like: Well, I never need to write about that again.
I didn’t understand how secret engines work.
Fast forward a few years. I stumbled upon a short blurb online about my dad’s involvement in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, a little-known event in the early civil rights movement. He’d never spoken about it, so if I wanted to learn more, I’d have to find people who knew him. Now, the important part of the story at this point is that I could never have started this research if I hadn’t written “Long Distance.” I had crafted the experience and my feelings about it into something that felt whole and right, and doing so freed me up to think about him in new ways. As, for instance, a young activist, maybe even a hero.
I had no intention of including myself in what eventually became Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus. I wanted to write history, or maybe biography, but the more I researched, the more my own skepticism got in the way. For one thing, when my dad was arrested, he jumped bail. Even though blacks from the movement told me over and over that as a white guy in the white jail he’d have been killed as a so-called “nigger lover,” I refused to believe. I was too angry at him. Why? Clearly not because of what happened in 1957, but because of what happened in 1979. So I’d have to go there. Again. I’d have to meld my story with his story, memoir with history, and this time I’d have to include more details from the night he died. We were home alone together, and he told me he was going running against doctor’s orders, and I tried to stop him but could not. He said, “Don’t tell Mom.” So I didn’t. I hadn’t. For thirty years, I carried a staggering burden of guilt. Writing it down alleviated it, healed me in a way. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t have done it without the research. Doing the historical research opened up the possibility of writing the personal scene, and writing the personal scene offered new understanding of the history. Neither would be half as good without the other. I told myself I had learned the value of cross-pollination.
But even that is not the end.
Writing Test Ride was hard, excruciating at times. So sometimes, when I needed a break, I worked on a novel about a 14 year-old girl snowboarder. I told everyone the novel was a fun diversion, something completely different. I’d work on Test Ride, then work on the kid’s book, then go back to Test Ride. After Test Ride was published, I pulled out the novel to polish it up and to my utter shock—how had I not seen this?—it was all about a girl and her activist father. In other words this was the exact same story. Again. I was mortified. I shoved the manuscript back in the proverbial drawer. People asked about it, and I said just didn’t work out.
Last winter I started missing those characters, so I went looking for permission to repeat myself. Again. It didn’t take long perusing the bookshelf to find Cheryl Strayed writing about her mother’s death in the fine novel Torch (2006) a decade before writing about it again in Wild (2013) or to reread Mary Karr’s poetry collection Viper Rum (1998) and see that it covered much the same ground—finding sobriety and religious faith—as her memoir Lit (2009). If writers that good could do it, I decided, I could, too.
So I went back to the kids’ novel, and here’s what I found. First, the fictional father is a surprisingly rich and three-dimensional character, flaky but funny, obsessed but also loving, someone a reader can care about. Why? Because in fiction, I wasn’t mired in the myopic “I”—the real scarred-up me—I had to give him a back story and motivation, which unlocked a door to imagination, and as a result, to empathy. But there was an even bigger discovery. The novel’s climactic scene finds the main character out snowboarding with her dad when he falls and has a heart attack (honest to god, how had I believed I was writing a different story?) but – spoiler alert! – she saves him. She drags him off the mountain and he lives.
Any amateur psychologist can explain the value of writing that scene. I rewrote my past! For a long time, I believed writing the real scene (“Don’t tell Mom”) is what freed me to write Test Ride, but maybe writing this fictional scene did. Certainly the opposite is true, writing Test Ride gave me the burning motivation that drives the rescue scene in the novel. And “burning” is the key. The energy of that scene, the energy of the entire book—The Luckiest Scar on Earth to be published by Torrey House Press on February 14—comes from the deepest place in me.
I’m still not entirely over the embarrassing fact that, all these years later, I still apparently need to write about my father’s death again and again, but I’m in awe of the writing process, the healing it spurs in all of us, writers and readers alike. So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it. Allegiance to the secret engine? I don’t think we have a choice.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of five award-winning nonfiction books including Now Go Home, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, and Reclaimers. She lives and writes in the North Cascades and teaches in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. www.anamaliaspagna.com. Read More
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
In the past, I’ve posted a handful of craft/teaching essays on/about the differing functions of research:.
The first is my essay The Role of Research in Writing Personal Narratives; (see # 6 in the archives below); another is # 37; Kim Kupperman’s The Body of the Beholder: Some Notes on Voice. In this piece, Kim cites Peter Elbow and others’ research on voice to support her own views: and #44, Karen Babine’s Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First Year Students--an essay that combines research-based materials with Karen's experience of teaching place to freshman writing students.
This month’s craft/teaching essay, Jo Scott Coe’s Call Me the Midwife, Sometimes, is about how doing two kinds of research in her investigation of a murder led her to discover not simply the facts and artifacts (what Jo refers to as “first-time research”), but perhaps the even more important human story that lies beneath the facts and artifacts.
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
As my new book, MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, heads to press, I am reflecting on the different roles we play when delivering nonfiction stories. Metaphors about writing are imperfect, discursive, and overlapping, but they can still help us understand our aesthetic approach and our ethical position. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about indirection, waiting, and partnership in nonfiction. I’m thinking about the difference between writing as a surgeon and writing as a midwife.
Nothing about MASS came easily. It involved nearly five years of intense research about the religious milieu into which Charles Whitman was born and raised before committing his shooting rampage at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. I studied mid-century American Catholicism and the seminary training of priests. The work required a lot of first-time digging to develop a portrait of Whitman’s ordained and troubled friend, a clergyman who had all but disappeared before he died, more than thirty years ago.
I usually experience nonfiction research as a kind of archaeology, a methodical excavation. But that metaphor was not precise enough for all of the work of MASS. At times, I had to act as a narrative surgeon, armed with proverbial knives and saws and oxygen masks, a mind-map of contingencies and if/then charts in my head. I also had to muster a fierceness of purpose and focus because the story was breached and tangled within institutional as well as individual histories. The process felt taboo, unwieldy, even dangerous, as if I were fighting against nature or HMO policy to revive what had been preemptively discarded as disposable tissue.
Like surgeons, sometimes nonfiction writers have to “take” or “get” the story. We insert ourselves and schedule procedures, roll our sleeves, wash our hands up to the elbow, and dig in. It’s a big mess before it gets better. We try to keep it sanitary.
But just as “excavation” eventually yielded its usefulness as a way of understanding, “surgery” yielded to “midwifery.” Near the end of my work for MASS, I stumbled into and completed a long-form investigative essay that explored the perspective of Whitman’s wife, Kathy Leissner, whom he killed the night before the tower shootings.
No one had told her story before. “Listening to Kathy” took approximately six months to complete—a much more compressed timeline, relatively speaking, with a process no less rigorous than the first. But I understood that the story had come to me. Not out of a fog or a trance or on the back of an eagle, but because a source decided to share and I was available after months of parallel surgical practice.
Kathy’s eldest brother and I had interacted when I was finishing MASS. I had contacted him with a very narrow area of interest: did he have memories of the priest who presided over his sister’s wedding in 1962? We exchanged letters, emails, and talked on the phone, and then I didn’t meet him in person for another year.
He had already received all manner of polite and oddball inquiries across the five decades since his sister was murdered. At one point, he shared a story about someone sidling up to him long ago in a restaurant and making light conversation until, then, abruptly declaring: “I already know a lot about you.” Who knows whether this person was another writer angling for a story, or someone obsessed with Whitman’s crime, or a researcher working on behalf of someone else. But Kathy’s brother didn’t stick around to find out. He summarily walked away. I would have, too.
It’s difficult enough to connect with strangers about tough subjects as a writer even when you’re open and friendly. But the scene described to me was haunting because it smacked of the young surgeon at a cocktail party, playing god, a little too enamored of his own specialty—body parts rather than people—and a lot too proud of his BMW. It was a cautionary tale, I think, for all writers doing research: Don’t make it weirder than it already is.
Perhaps because of all the work I’d already struggled with in examining the trauma before and resulting from the UT shooting, I understood that Kathy’s was not a story to be “gotten” or “grabbed.” Treating Kathy as a “possession” was in fact the core of her husband’s attitude, emboldening him in the end with the toxic permission to take her life.
When Kathy’s story eventually came—that is, when her brother decided he was ready to share it, and that he wanted to work with me—her material tumbled into my professional care all at once. I was charged with reviewing and studying never-before seen primary documents, including letters and photographs, and speaking with surviving friends and family members who had not agreed to interviews before.
Like MASS, “Kathy” required first-time research. But my surgical skills and knowledge were secondary in bringing forth the story at all. None of that would have mattered unless her brother had trusted me, which meant that he would help me help him bring the story forward. We tend to see midwives as lesser-skilled medical assistants in the birthing room. But that fails to recognize different kinds of necessary expertise. In order to be born, Kathy’s story required me to be ready to be ready, more narrative partner than technician.
I have been asked since “Listening to Kathy” first appeared in Catapult: How did you “get” this material? How did you “get” this access? While I understand these questions in the spirit within which they’re offered, I also cringe a little. They reduce the labor—only possible as a result of evolving mutual trust and collaboration—to an individual conquest or a feat.
A larger question may be: Why should artifacts and memories protected and preserved for half a century be shared with anyone? I don’t know the answer. I can’t offer a formula or a certification that qualified me to be on the receiving end. I can say I am sure this wasn’t entirely up to me—that’s probably the key.
Some stories must be yanked, sliced, sewn, and sawed at. In the messiest cases, scars heal after complications or linger because deeper wounds have been disturbed. But sometimes we may actually be invited to bring material forward for public understanding, to expand the discourse on a subject that may have seemed to be closed.
The journey from MASS to “Listening to Kathy” taught me the difference between the story that didn’t want to be saved and the story that was dying to be written. Each one required something different of me. As writers, we would do well to consider when to begin with the scalpel and when to hold back external tools, attending first to the humanity of the sources who reveal themselves. Reflecting on this choice may make the difference between discovering a story and losing it forever.
Jo Scott-Coe’s latest book is MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (forthcoming from Writ Large Press). Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a Great Read by Ms. Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Talking Writing, Catapult, Assay, Superstition Review, Salon, Cultural Weekly, Luna Luna, River Teeth, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Times, and many other venues. She has also had Notable listings in Best American Essays. Jo works as an associate professor of English at Riverside City College in Southern California. You can find her on Twitter @joscottcoe and on FB @teacheratpointblank.
Here’s the link:
Listening to Kathy.
This month’s guest blogger is Tarn Wilson, a first-rate memoirist, essayist, and creative writing teacher.
* I first heard Tarn’s talk “Finding Form” at last year’s NonfictionNow conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was part of a panel on/about structure. In fact, my last month’s post, Joe Mackall's essay, came from that same panel.
As a writer, editor, and teacher, I’ve always believed that finding the right form/structure for either a stand-alone piece or a book length-work is the writer’s most fundamental, important challenge.
Those familiar with this blog know that I’ve posted perhaps more craft/teaching essays on matters of structure, what Annie Dillard describes as “fashioning a text.” than I have on any other aspect or element of our craft.
And to my mind, one of the wisest, most accessible (and inclusive) pieces is Tarn Wilson’s “Finding Form.” In describing her own struggles to find the right form for her memoir The Slow Farm, Tarn speaks directly and with great empathy and respect to writers--novices and experienced alike--and to teachers of literary nonfiction; including high school, college (undergraduate and graduate), and adult education.
*Last winter, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies published all five essays. The link is Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies
Blog # 54 FINDING FORM BY TARN WILSON
I’m going to make an assumption. You either have pages of non-fiction material, yet to find a form—or like me, you’re a nerd obsessed with anything related to the writing process and structure. To get us started, I’ll begin with some highly simplistic and arguable definitions:
Essay - the exploration of a question or an idea, which may include personal experiences to support the thinking.
Memoir – a personal story, which may include reflection to deepen the meaning.
Of course, our nonfiction writing exists on a continuum. How, then, in our writing, do we choose the ratio of reflection to story? How do we find our form?
To help us think about these question, I’m going to share some lessons I learned in the process of writing my memoir, The Slow Farm, the story of my early years with my hippy parents, living off the land in British Columbia.
First lesson: Don’t be in a hurry. I wrote the first draft, if you could call it that, in my mid-twenties. It was autobiographical fiction. I sent it to the only writer I knew, who noted a few lines she liked, but let me down gently with this spare, wise advice. “Don’t be in a hurry.” I read between the lines: the book was not yet a book. Slowly, I realized I’d chosen to fictionalize because—while I had vivid memories of childhood—I did not yet understand their significance. I’d used fiction to force resolutions I’d not yet earned. I needed more time to listen to the material, to trust I’d discover the reasons the memories were rising in me. So I started writing and writing and writing, as honestly as I could, a new prompt almost every day, resisting the urge to settle on form too early.
Second lesson: Find some boundaries. My whole childhood had been complicated and unusual—and I was trying to write it all. The story was too big and unfocused. Since almost every writing exercise I gave myself, no matter where it began, ended with my time on Texada Island, I decided I’d focus on those years my parents were attempting their counter-culture experiment. (This required I cut the first third of my book, writing I’d labored over. It took a full day of alternatingly walking and lying on my back on my bed arguing with myself before I finally had the courage to let it go.) But I was pleased my story was now bound both geographically and by time.
The next stage taught me a number of lessons about finding form. In those early years when I was first drafting, I was reading nature writers and as well as memoirs of spiritual journeys: Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams. I started to see my story in a cosmic or mythological framework. I reflected on the fluid nature of memory. I learned about the geological history of the region and imagined the islands of the Pacific Northwest rising from the sea. I linked my story to the story of Genesis and to the nature of creativity itself – form coming from formlessness. I linked my story to the Garden of Eden: my parents’ search for a perfect wilderness, which couldn’t last. I used that as a frame and opened each chapter with a quote from Genesis or writers on the nature of creativity and story.
When I gave my new pages to my first readers, they were not interested in any of my fabulous abstract pondering. They only cared about the little moments in which I seemed to have accurately captured a child’s point of view. I seemed to have stumbled upon a voice, not the literal voice of a child, but a voice true to a child’s consciousness.
Eventually, again, and with much pain, I cut my philosophical reflection, leaving me with a spare book, brief vignettes from a hippy kid. (All those abandoned passages—more pages than made the final version—were not wasted. They just sunk underground, invisibly informing the themes and structure.)
In the process I learned this about myself: I tend to go abstract – to obsess over meaning, patterns, and making connections. In my writing (and probably in my life), I had to become more grounded, to tie my stories to place and time and specific details.
As I did, I realized I’d been using intellectual meanderings to distance myself from the difficult emotions that would arise when I was fully immersed in a scene. I had to write toward what scared me, toward the emotion in the story. Lesson learned: Notice your strategies for avoiding discomfort and work against your default tendencies.
Lesson four: Pay attention to your readers. I was exploring so many directions—and so actively trying to avoid what was painful—I couldn’t recognize when I’d hit on something true. This is where my new group of other beginning writers came in. They didn’t yet have much expertise, but they could tell me when they thought the writing was alive, and they all pointed to the same passages.
Lesson five: Voice can lead you to form. Those passages then guided the shape of the book. It evolved into short chapters, in a child’s perspective, with vivid sense detail, similar to the beautiful book House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
But then I had a problem. A child’s point of view is, by nature, limited – especially the ages I was covering—four through six. The story seemed suffocating insular, lacking any history, cultural context, or sense of how the story had shaped me as an adult. But any time I tried to weave in context and reflection, those passages were a jarring intrusion into the child’s world.
By this time I’d enrolled in an MFA program, so with the help of my mentor Judith Kitchen, we devised a solution. Between each chapter, I included an “artifact” which reveals some context to the reader: quotes from the counter culture books my parents were reading, song lists and lyrics, historical time lines, photographs, excerpts from letters, newspaper clippings. Instead of guiding the readers to an evaluation of my parents’ choices, I asked them to actively engage. To myself, I called this absence of reflection “gaps”: space where I invite the reader to make meaning.
Of course, I made conscious decisions in how I juxtaposed the artifacts. For example I placed a line from Summerhill’s A Radical Approach to Childrearing that argues against the teaching of table manners next to a scene in which I was ashamed I didn’t know social niceties. I placed the line, “I do not think that seeing sexual intercourse would have any bad effect on a self-regulated child” next to an unsettling sexual incident.
And I do develop themes around learning, idealism, and acceptance, but in the end, I make few evaluations on my parents’ choices or how they’d shaped me. (I knew I’d achieved my goal when in the same week one reader accused my parents of being abusive and another enthused about the freedom and love they’d provide me.)
But there was a cost to the choice to cut most reflection. Most best selling memoirs are shaped like novels. They included big plot events, which lead, in the last third of the story, to a climactic turning point when a writer has a psychological insight, which leads to an improved life—or at least some hard-earned wisdom. My story had veered from that model. I knew that meant it would be difficult to find a publisher. Even worst, though, I feared that my book was boring and irreparably flawed, maybe not a book at all.
Then I stumbled upon an article by the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, published in Poets and Writers: “Bride in Beige.” He observes that people who work primarily in other genres come to memoir with a “habitual way of making meaning.” He says journalists “understand reality as something that can be corroborated: facts can and must be checked.” Essayists follow a line of inquiry. Novelists, he says, are concerned with the creation of the narrator as a character, in relationship with other characters. (I’d add that the novelists have contributed to the expectation that a memoir follow a predictable redemptive story arc.) Poets, though, are after “a representation of how it feels to live.” I realized that although I did not think of myself as poet, I was writing from that sensibility. I was aiming to capture what it felt like to be alive as a child in a place and time.
His frame gave me more confidence in my choices. Those readers who expected a journalistic or novelistic structure might be disappointed, but I was poet. Who knew! Lesson learned: Form grows from your intentions.
My meandering mess had been paired down to a tight story with minimal reflection and has been far better received by a wider audience than I’d ever hoped. In the years since, however, I’ve written nothing but essay, gorging myself on the reflection I’d denied myself. Now, I’m starting a new memoir (I think), with the familiar fear and uncertainty, wrestling again with voice and form. So, I’ve written this for you. But I’ve also written this for me, to remind myself.
Lesson seven. Begin again at the beginning. Don’t be in a hurry.
Tarn Wilson is the author of the memoir The Slow Farm. Her essays appear in Brevity, Defunct, Gulf Stream, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, River Teeth, Ruminate, South Loop Review, and The Sun, among others. She is a graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read More
Blog # 53
Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,
Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
In January1999, the inaugural issue of issue of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, the literary journal I founded, came out. Some three months later, Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman, both at Ashland University, founded River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. These were the second and third literary journals devoted exclusively to the genre we’re now calling creative nonfiction. In fact, Creative Nonfiction Lee Gutkind’s journal preceded both Fourth Genre and River Teeth by some four years. And today, all three journals are still actively engaged in helping to shape an ongoing, evolving conversation about the genre.
Back in 1999, neither Joe or I could have predicted just how diverse and inclusive the genre would become. Nor could we have imagined just how many first-rate literary writers not only have made the form their own, but also have expanded its scope and possibilities.
When I was a graduate student, and during the early years of my teaching career, with few exceptions (The Paris Review comes to mind) the editors of many literary journals were as often or not, scholar/teachers and/or literary critics.
Which is not the case with many of our very best contemporary literary journals. For the past twenty-plus years, a good number of editors are first and foremost teaching writers. And to my mind, one of the very best writer/editor/teachers is Joe Mackall, who also to my great delight agreed to be this month’s guest blogger.
Joe’s bio note below gives us just a small sample of the fine books he’s written. But if you look further, you’ll find the many, many workshops and talks he’s presented as well as the impressive number of essays on/about matters of genre and craft—many of which, including this month's post, ”Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers,” ,are of great value to those of us who write and teach this form.
This month I’m delighted to feature Joe’s The piece first appeared in Assay’s special conference issue. The piece is from a recent Nonfiction Now panel on structure and shape—an important part, maybe the most important part, of what we do. It's something we’ve discussed in previous posts. And something we'll continue to talk more about in forthcoming posts.
For a look at all five of those essays go to
Assay Journal and take a look at Hydra-Headed Memoirs & Well-Connected Essays.
Blog #53 Of Rats, Whiskey Priests and Half-Crazed Grandfathers, Joe Mackall, Guest Blogger
Whenever I’ve spent too much time wondering if what I’m writing is an essay or memoir or literary nonfiction or anything else really, bad things start to happen. First I’ll stare at the screen as if it’s a divine oracle, and what I need to do is wait patiently for the answers to all my writing problems. When that fails, I gaze out my office window, watching the squirrels, wondering how they all stay so damn busy.
But on bad days before I can move my fingers on the keyboard, my rat brain kicks in. The rats fill my mind with unpretty thoughts. They sound something like this: Oh, my god, maybe I’ve said all there is to say about the passing of time in one ten-page essay, too many writers far better than I have exhausted the terrain of family and ancestors and descendants, maybe I’m writing a collection of essays, oh, my god, the only thing worse than a memoir on how becoming a grandparent has upended my life is a collection of essays about how becoming a grandparent has upended my life. Won’t reading essays about some bald-ass middle-aged white guy becoming a grandfather be a lot like looking at pictures of an acquaintance’s grandkids? Oh, they’re so cute. Oh, he has your nose. Oh, what does she call you? Oh, who gives a shit? Maybe I can use the biggest lie in nonfiction publishing to my advantage: It’s a memoir in essays. Sure, nobody would see through that sophisticated masquerade. Maybe there’s no point in writing at all. Who’s going to be reading books in ten years anyway? Goddamn Kindle. Screens everywhere you look. iPad this. But then, just as I’m about to break down and weep, out of the dark and dank alleys populated by the rodents, the sad, disillusioned, yet kindly and often wise priest who lives in my brain turns a light on. The rats scurry, vanish. And then I hear his sonorous voice: Just write what you need to write, my son, goddamnit. It’s all about that. It always has been.
I’m beginning to believe that the worst thing about writing is publishing, or at the very least publishing too soon. Even giving a reading from a book not yet finished can be damaging, at least for me. The book I’m working on now I’m calling personal nonfiction in an attempt to stop trying to wrest essay from memoir or condense as yet unrealized sections of memoir into essays. The problem arises when I’ve tried to excerpt some of the manuscript for a reading or for publication.
At that point, I’ve tended to force the issue, fashioning essays out of what was longer and less defined material. Now I have four pieces, two have been published and two have been read in public. All four seem “complete,” as if I’ve said everything I’ve needed to say about the subjects of those similar but separate pieces. This is where I found myself a few months ago. For all my work, I could not write anything else on my book. An imaginary brain priest can only do so much. I had the four “complete” pieces at the beginning of the book and then a mass of writhing, squirming half-baked thoughts for the next two hundred pages.
So I did what every sensible nonfiction writer would do: I started work on a novel. But this didn’t solve the problem. All the unanswered questions of my nonfiction book were still unanswered. All the dread and anxiety that overtook me upon becoming a grandparent did not go away. I needed to get back to my book. I needed to move myself toward understanding, but I still could not get past the fact of these published sections.
I know the old whiskey priest is right. He and I share a working-class background. We know not a single bricklayer, for example, ever looked at a problem with a wall and said: That’s going to be too much work to fix. I’ll just have five-foot ceilings in this house. I love those other walls I’ve built. Those walls say it all. People will be sitting down reading their Kindles anyway, so what’s the point of an eight-foot ceiling. No, a bricklayer would solve the problem. She’d tear down the whole damn wall and start over if that’s what it took. Bricklayers do not truck in rats. That’s the nature of craft. "
I’ve been so busy entangling myself in the terms of art that I’ve ignored the work of craft. So I got to work. I’ll offer a couple of paragraphs from one of my “published-too- soon-essays” to give an idea of the subject matter and my attempt to get back to what Sonya Huber has called" a book-length nonfiction thing."
“I can’t exist more than a few days without seeing my granddaughters. My whole way of being wavers in their presence. My dark disposition begins to lighten up. I’ve figured out some of it. After a quarter century of loving all the same people, I’ve fallen in love with somebody new. I’ve loved my children all of their lives and my wife every day for nearly thirty years, but now there’s new love. Perhaps my heart’s tectonic shifts have shaken my psychic geography. I have two new people to love, two new people to see the world through, to share life with, to worry about, to fear for in a time when I sometimes can’t recognize my own country and when the world’s people appear easily connected electronically and so dangerously disconnected in just about every other conceivable way."
“I often feel as though I’m moving toward the edge of a foreign
land, the plains of an emotional dystopia. I know it’s connected in ways I don’t fully understand to life as a grandfather and as a man in his fifties, life as an American in a country increasingly polarized, fracked, outsourced, droned, downsized, gunned down, teetering on the dream-edge of itself. As a writer, editor, a full, tenured professor, I have work I love and am still young and coherent enough to do. I also know what’s out there waiting for me: impotence, probably; incontinence, likely; senior moments, and then, surely, no moments at all. I have a great family, a wife I cherish, three loving children, two wondrous granddaughters. My father’s alive and well and lives a couple miles from me. My granddaughters too live only minutes away. Yet just beyond all this peace and love I perceive the vague existence of foreboding or surrender or something I’ve not allowed myself to imagine. I’m gazing through paradise and seeing into the shadow of the fall.”
What I’m going to try in order to break out of my essay/memoir/literary nonfiction funk is reach into the shadow life of the words in these paragraphs. For example, how much of my anguish stems from my “dark disposition”? I need to pull out that thread and stretch it across the bolt of the bigger story. I also need to free write on the nature of familial love. What specifically is it about the world that I now fear? If it’s not a better place than it was in what ways am I implicated? What about this changing America? Is it changing or am I just getting older? How the hell did going to a movie become dangerous? If this doesn’t work, I’ll start teasing out words whose larger meanings seem to resonate. Words like “foreboding,” “surrender,” “paradise,” “the fall.” I’ll begin asking questions of my own material. Did my own grandparents feel any of this? How has grandparenting changed? What about the role of grandparents through time and in other cultures? Is anybody else as messed up as I am about this, or does everybody just whip out smart phones and finger-push faces of tiny strangers in front of people who don’t care?
Once I start taking on all of these ideas, start doing the necessary work of unpacking these essays, I can get back to the book-length thing. It will be a mess, but it will be mess worth the work.
And then just when I start to think I may just be ok after all, I recall this paragraph:
“I realize my reaction to becoming a grandfather is not typical, perhaps not even normal. A few confessions: I resisted getting new carpet in our library because my granddaughters had crawled upon the old. I’ve let Ellie, the oldest, cover every inch of my bald pate with Strawberry Shortcake stickers. I mourned the day she stopped watching the Wonder Pets. I still miss Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too. I’ve tucked a small blanket into my belt and, having been transformed into a princess by Ellie, danced around our living room, spinning until dizzy, my blanket billowing around me like a jeweled ball gown on a hippo prancing and pretty in a field of poppy.”
Joe Mackall is the author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and The Last Street Before Cleveland. Co-editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He teaches at Ashland University. Read More
This teaching blog on/about issues of genre and craft is approaching its fifth year; and while all the contributing writers, myself included, choose to write about whatever concerns they might have on/about our teaching and writing, a basic concern is --one I've noticed that keeps coming coming up regularly--about narratives and narrators. For the most part, the larger issue is about how and why personal essayists, as well as writers of memoir, personal literary journalism, and personal/cultural criticism, decide what the right fit is between our narrator(s) and what it is we're writing.
This is a matter, I believe, that's shared by most of us who teach in the genre. In her essay below, Jessica Handler approaches it in a somewhat different way. In her essay below, she explains how, both in her own writing as well as in her teaching, she distinguishes between the "Eye" and "I," narrators that she refers to as "dual selves.""
# 52 Addressing the Dual Selves in the “Eye and the I”, Jessica Handler, Guest Blogger
If we accept the fact that in the memoir and the personal essay, the “I” pronoun represents the contemporary self, the self doing the writing and the ruminating, then for me, the “eye” is that same earlier self, the self who’s experiencing past events.
The “I” considers and makes coherent narrative of what the “eye” saw, and
for the duration of the time at the desk, the making of the art, these
dual selves have to co-exist. Sometimes that desk can be a crowded place.
I’d like to address this approach to the “Eye/I” in my own work. I’d also like to offer some examples of how/why it encouraged me to use the “Eye/I” as an area of exploration for student writers new to exploring the idea of the author’s self as both narrator/protagonist.
I teach undergraduate, graduate, and adult education classes; and I’m consistently surprised by the number of student writers at all levels who struggle with the freedom and responsibilities of using that “I” pronoun.
We’re socialized to be hyper-aware that the use of “I” and “me” are bragging, dominating a conversation, and calling undue attention to the self. But if we’re writing creative nonfiction, particularly essays and memoirs, whose story is it but mine, me, I? Of course there’s balance involved, but it’s the recognition of how to welcome and best use that working area within “freedom + responsibility” that I consider that area of exploration.
We are, as Joan Didion writes in her 1968 essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be…”
I’m an experiential learner, which makes me particularly loyal to practicing experiential teaching. Writing my first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (2009), led to my first concrete engagement with the “Eye/I.”
So, the memoir: I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was thirty-two, I was the only one living. My younger sister Susie died of leukemia when she was eight and I was ten. Our youngest sister Sarah was born with a rare white cell disorder called Kostmann’s Syndrome, which is, in broad strokes, the opposite of leukemia. She died at 27. Our father was a civil rights attorney in Atlanta in the 60s, so we were as a family faced with the question of how to help others when we can’t help our own.
When I was an adolescent I’d begun writing my way into my story. It was a means of verifying for myself that I was present, alive, and living through an experience or a series of experiences. I wrote in journals, recording the most ordinary moments of my family’s life and mine. How my mom and I went to the grocery store. How my sister had brain surgery and my boyfriend made a stupid joke about it. I was. in fact. creating an “I” and “eye” without realizing it.
Other parts of our family’s chronicle existed in photographs, report cards and letters-- and outside of my own resources, in newspaper articles and libraries. As an adult writer, the availability of these items led me to physically, emotionally, and in many cases, sensually re-experience the “eye” that pure memory could not provide. Example #1 is that I kept so much of those ephemera.
Another example: when I was ten, not long after my sister Susie died, my father took my mother, my sister Sarah, and me – along with another family who were his best friends - on vacation to Jamaica. When I tell this story now, people sigh with delight imagining a family healing in a Caribbean paradise. In those days, Jamaica wasn't the tourist destination it is now, and even if it had been, none of us were ready for fun.
Thirty some years later, when I wrote about my family's trip, I kept seeing myself as a child, gagging over the ackee at our Jamaican breakfast table. My “eye” came back full force. That breakfast had tasted to me like burnt motor oil, it looked like runny eggs with big black spots, and it smelled like talcum power.
Was it really as bad as I remembered? I had been in an understandably
terrible frame of mind the summer I was ten, but simply writing about a
bad taste wasn’t a narrative, or even a scene. I wanted to test the difference
between the ten-year-old me (the “eye”) and the adult me (the “I”).
So I printed a recipe from the Internet, went to an international market,
bought canned ackee (there was none fresh where I live) and cooked a
facsimile of that breakfast. I ate it. And in that act, where I compared the
“eye” and the “I,” the writer me created an experience that I could write
about not only with some depth and conflict but also with the deliberate intent of making meaning and sense out of that experience– there’s that “I” on the page, claiming what’s true for her.
I’d say that doing the research is an experiential way of entering that possibility space, re-experiencing the “eye” through the lens of the “I.”
In order to create a narrative, sometimes, while I was cooking and eating, I wrote in double-entry notebooks. On one side of the line, notes about the facts—what, for example, I had in my hand– or in my mouth at the time. And when I was researching; I wrote notes on the other side, notes that described the questions, the emotional turmoil, the joys and surprises, I was feeling--along with the free associations that arose with each item. I also collected thousands of pages of medical records; I hunted down diaries and photos; and I revisited key locations.
The “eye” of me then and the “I” of me at the time of the writing were each
deeply affected, but differently--the “eye” by living this twenty year experience in real time; and the “I” by understanding that genuine, effective, and honorable writing about the experience would require a commitment to creating a narrative about the act of self examination.
That’s the experiential aspect of the “Eye/I.” And it’s also the permission I give both to myself and to my students.
In his essay, “Looking For My Family,” Ian Frazier explains that after his parents’ deaths, he catalogued their papers and the detritus of two lifetimes; neckties, purses, postcards, into what he called “The Mom and Dad Museum.” His method in crafting “Family” was to “look for artifact that suggested narrative.”
Writers of personal essays and memoirs can take something useful from Frazier’s approach. It’s his way of acknowledging that the passage of time is less about nostalgia and, in this particular case, more of an opportunity to create friction within a plot.
“How it felt to me…” Joan Didion writes. Which me is she considering? In this case, the “eye” – the me of “then.”
How, I ask students, did “it” feel to you, that wedding, that funeral, that
Boring afternoon on the intercity bus, that time you careened down a park side hill with your brother on a red Flexible Flyer? This inquiry, along with giving them sufficient time to write, allows students to open up, look inside, and meet themselves coming round again. Still another example of how we, as writers, can develop more substantive narratives.
Writing creative nonfiction, as we know, involves much more than plot. It allows us to examine and evaluate the effects of an important subject, and in that way, it operates on two levels; a nominal level, which is the surface, or basic storyline, and a substantive level, the real pulse that runs beneath the storyline.
Knowing this can help us better understand the difference between the “Eye/I.” The “eye” shows us the nominal story, and the “I” extracts and develops the substantive story. It is in the substantive writing that the author of an essay or a memoir does most of her real work; and it’s also where the reader locates the heart of the piece.
Writing about the self means that, for the duration of the writing, you can’t really separate the two selves. Think of the Russian nesting doll, the matroyshka doll. The outer shell is the writer self, and the inner dolls are the ‘eye’ selves.
Without the inner pieces, that doll is empty.
Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009, University of Georgia Press, 2015) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Newsweek, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Featured as one of nine contemporary Southern women writers in Vanity Fair magazine, she learned to never again wear couture. She teaches at Ogellhorpe University in Atlanta.
www.jessicahandler.com Read More