On Narrators, Memoir, and the “Pretty Shabby Stuff” Inside

November 20, 2008 § 6 Comments

Author Gary Presley is an occasional contributor to both Brevity and the Brevity Blog, and author of Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, new from the University of Iowa Press.  We recommend his memoir, and recommend his thoughts on sypathetic and unsympathetic narrators:

I help lead a group that discusses creative nonfiction. There’s about thirty of us exchanging emails, and we all profit in dissecting an essay or a book chapter every week. In fact, I’ve hit up (Brevity editor) Dinty W. Moore regarding his editing experiences, particularly about publishing a piece with an unattractive or unsympathetic narrator.

I always knew I could be a jerk, although I don’t think it really came through in my writing when I stuck to essays. What I did learn when I set out to write in a longer form, though, is interesting. It may be a tough gig to be a jerk in real life, it’s even tougher as being a jerk who wants to write a memoir.

I’m what’s referred to as a “polio quad,” most likely the result of what is now called a “vaccine accident.” That happened long ago and far away. As you might expect, it made me angry, bitter, and oftentimes frustrated with my lot. But that’s something I hide from most people most of the time, even when I wrote op/eds about disability issues.

One day, though, I was inspired to write a wry and ironic essay about one of the practicalities of using a wheelchair — the essay was entitled “A Pot to Pee in.”

Why? I think because I was in the mood to be honest, perhaps even to be honest with myself, which is a trait I urge on others but often avoid on my own. Something good came of it, though. I discovered readers like honesty. In fact, several in my critique group said, “This is good. You need to write a memoir.”

And so I did. It’s called Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio.

In writing the book, I did go beyond polio, down toward a place where I learned something about my life, about the person I had become, about living “boob-high to the world,” as my wife describes it.

What interested me, though, is more than one reader seemed puzzled over the anger and frustration and bitterness within the memoir. “That’s not the Gary I know.”

Sure enough. I was right. I am a jerk, at least sometimes, and thankfully mostly in private. I always knew there was wisdom in the novelist Peter DeVries’ observation, “Human nature is pretty shabby stuff, as you may know from introspection.”

But in writing the book, I also learned I am an observer, a person honest enough to recognize that element of jerkiness, forgive himself for it, and understand that by offering something “so bitingly honest that … readers sometimes cringe before turning the page … ” that I have been able to illustrate disability is a normal aspect with the human condition and to change a few minds about what it means to live with a disability, to recognize the need for equal access, and to think hard thoughts about institutional care and end-of-life issues.

Gary Presley www.garypresley.com
SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A Life beyond Polio
Fall 2008 University of Iowa Press

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§ 6 Responses to On Narrators, Memoir, and the “Pretty Shabby Stuff” Inside

  • Alice Folkart says:

    Splendid, Mr.Presley – something I hadn’t thought about, and now that you’ve voiced it, I realize that one strong aspect of my writing is to make myself look good, to hide my defects, my warts, my jerkiness. Your essay will make me take a closer look and maybe even be a little more daring – after all, what can happen? Truth, maybe. Thanks.

    Alice Folkart

  • We’re all jerks in private, Gary, human nature being what it is. Some have the courage to admit it, and share it. You happen to be one of my favorite jerks, and it takes one to know one, they say. Your book has stuck with me, parts return to me that I ponder still in a broader application than your experience alone. Powerful stuff.

  • Lorri says:

    Gary, I’m one of those writers in favor of honesty, in what I read and what I write. It’s one of those polarizing traits, and for the same piece of writing I get people who love what I’ve written and people who hate it. I think the key is to acknowledge that if you go out on that limb, you’re going to get some people shaking your tree. For myself, I’d rather make people think, even if what they’re thinking is they don’t like me much! Which isn’t to say the negative reactions don’t sometimes make me go, Gulp!

    By the way, I’m sure you’ve read Andre Dubus’ “Meditations from a Movable Chair”?

  • Lisa Romeo says:

    The thing is, being honest enough to be an authentic jerk on the page — or a severely flawed human being, an arrogant bitch, etc. — provided the writing is well-crafted too, will get you read with a lot more engagement than the most finely written niceness.
    It took me a while to learn this, and I still struggle with the urge to be liked as a narrator (or vindicated), instead of being a narrator a reader will follow, warts and all.

  • LILA RUCH says:

    Gary, I just finished reading your book & now will miss ‘hearing’ from you on a daily basis.
    My husband & I are preparing to attend the International/National Post-Polio Conference in Warm Springs next week. I was wondering if we will have the priviledge of meeting you & Belinda there?
    Sincere best wisheS…….Lila Ruch

  • LILA RUCH says:

    hope to get a reply from you……….Lila

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