In Defense of the Ordinary
April 30, 2013 § 8 Comments
I write in defense of the ordinary life. Two common impulses in writing autobiographically—what happened to me is important; what happened matters because it happened to me—are problematic, since very few of us experience dramatic, statistically rare events during our lives, and yet all of us experience, well, something. When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, the qualities of my experience or character don’t really matter in and of themselves. I try to recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive, something recognizable. With each essay, I begin with something that matters to me. Then I begin to consider, How might this matter to you? By which I mean, How might it matter?
“We only store in memory images of value,” says Patricia Hampl. Some days I believe this. Here are two tableaux from my adolescence, one wide-view, one close-up. The first: when I was a kid my dad would slip me a dollar or so each Saturday and off I’d go on my allowance walk. I’d head up Amherst and cut through the apartments toward Wheaton Newsstand, where I’d happily withstand the crossfire between Topps baseball cards and Penthouse Forum, clear plastic wrapper versus brown paper, and, clutching my Cherry Smash soda, head toward Barbarian Bookstore across Georgia Avenue to peruse old paperbacks and men’s magazines in the musty aroma of oldness. After a stop at Wheaton Plaza, or Highs for a Slurpee, I’d wind back toward home, slowly, always wanting to put off my arrival, prizing, without knowing why, my aloneness.
The second: at the family dinner table one night, the usual cheerful din made by the eight of us, and in memory I jump-cut to my mom, her eyes wet, her face red, pushing away from the table and blurting out, “Maybe if I had a broken arm, you could see how much it hurt!” and dashing upstairs to her bedroom. We’d ignored her migraine headache, or made light of it, or something equally awful, until she was forced to make a highly uncharacteristic dramatic scene. Dismal silence and grief reigned at the table afterward.
Who cares? That these separate events from my childhood linger in me doesn’t make them subjects; it renders them private material, sentimentally stoked in the dark of my memory and imagination. To elevate them from common, trivial memory, I hope to discover (if I’m lucky) what about them might be representational. Wallace Stevens explored the contours of a metaphor, declaring that “An ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object.” What more ordinary an object is there than myself? It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human.
If, after Stevens, I turn myself slightly during my allowance walk, I’m the explorer, the wanderer, a boy crossing from childhood to adolescence (from Reggie Jackson to Marilyn Chambers) beginning an exile from innocence that’s repeated everywhere: a journey from the bright, unlimited sun of childhood to the dimmer, more complicated afternoons of adulthood. At the dinner table that night, after mom fled upstairs, what of that? I can see if I look again that the child in that moment is deepened by dimension: a solipsist, unhappy to learn that he was cruel, and at the same what it feels like to be ashamed. How intricate and surprising and complex it is to love.
Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.
I once wrote about an incident when I was ten and stole a cheap plastic ring from a boardwalk store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where my family was staying on vacation. Recently I read Gary Wills’s slim biography of St. Augustine and happened upon Wills’s account of a young Augustine stealing pears from an orchard. Both gestures—mine and the future Bishop of Hippo’s—were petty and inconsequential, boys’ malfeasances. Is it extraordinary or ordinary, the way two people separated by centuries, continents, and circumstances (not to mention less tangible characteristics) overlapped in a surprising, graphic way? Someone might accuse me of comparing myself to St. Augustine; theology will say that he becomes extraordinary, but in that moment he’s an ordinary teen. What I feel I’m doing is recognizing something emblematic in unrelated gestures of two wandering youths.
Perversely, the goal of an autobiographical essayist is both to dramatize the personal and to shed personality. I don’t mean that an essayist’s personality shouldn’t be present, far from it, but by the end of the essay the particulars of her personality—the moving parts that got the writer and the reader this far—should blur and morph into that abstract silhouette of the human, an outline into which the reader might fit, too.
Joe Bonomo’s new book is This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, a collection of essays. His other books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas.com).