A Life In Progress: Writing My Last Eight-Thousand Days
October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:
DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?
LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.
The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.
As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.
One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.
DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again?
LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.
DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?
LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.
More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.