A Thumbnail Archeology, or, From Jottings to Contract & Beyond
May 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By John Domini
It was wholly personal, first to last, yet I’d never have finished the book without thinking who else might read it and why — thinking, that is, of suspense, sequence, and the market.
At first it was only jottings, a diary. No Moleskin, rather a hand-sized spiral-bound thing off the Safeway shelves for “School Supplies.” I needed to get back to school, though I was approaching 40. I needed to start over, to forge a life that felt more honest. In the effort to renew, nothing proved so helpful as the old. More and more I worked out trips back to Naples, the ancient seaport where my father had grown to adulthood and I’d visited as a teenager. The downtown byways may have remained in continuous use longer than any around the world, and there I became a kid again. I traveled wrinkled yet wide-eyed, my knees creaking but my spirit developing fresh flex. Nowadays, almost three decades later, I can revisit the first stirrings of that renewal. I can browse again through my off-the-rack notebook.
The quaderno lies bundled with six or eight others, from subsequent trips. I have as well pages of newsprint which passages underlined or starred, and thick sheafs of exploratory prose, the earliest printed on dot-matrix. Between those fragments and the later, fuller MSS, I can retrace my own twenty-year journey from broken to whole.
In making myself over, my go-to workshop became family’s native city. Rich with beauty and inspiration, it also held ugly secrets, tight corners that can suffocate hope. Two or three of my most disturbing discoveries concerned my own relations, even my father. The man died halfway through my learning, or re-learning, but his old stomping grounds continued to speak (as did his ghost, I’m convinced, a couple of times). I found that all my family complications, even the most recent, had some connection to ancient tribal ways. So too, my own reconstruction demanded I comprehend both new wounds and old scars.
Yet likewise integral to Domini Redux was a career in literature. Yes, “career” is a euphemism, in a country so unfriendly to the arts, and “literature” too remains a slippery slope. I lost my footing often, as I clambered into the second half of my life. Still, I committed to teaching books, writing about them, and what’s more to composing as many as I could, myself. I was all done with “business writing,” though the contracts were more reliable, and certainly more lucrative. From here on, I’d have to make do with other support structures, in particular magazines, newspapers, grants, and literary agents.
These came querying, or responding to my own, every now and again. Over time a long and winding time—I placed Naples pieces in major papers, in better quarterlies and a couple of slicks, and my research also won a substantial grant or two, carrying a whiff of prestige. Over a long time, more than one agent suggested a book.
These were men and women of decent sensibility, and I was hardly cold to the idea myself. The first title I ventured, as I worked up the first proposal, was Eternal Downtown, the last was Cooking the Octopus—and neither of those, as you can see, appear on the cover of the final. In one sense the whole process left me with nothing. A pair of file folders grew fat with rejections, concluding of course with a kiss-off from the agent, and I developed a churning nausea every time someone said “proposal.” Yet by now I can also make out how these labors had another, better outcome, over a long and winding time.
Each run at the materials, I realize now, put up some load-bearing wall for the structure that now stands complete. Even the scrapbook left from Eternal Downtown, saddled with the generic subtitle “biography of a city” (sorry; the agent insisted) — even that preschooler’s mudpie had an organization I continued to use thereafter. Each section, then as now, bore a title taken from the city’s timeless folk sayings. Indeed, when I named one MS Cooking the Octopus, I was citing such an aphorism: “the octopus cooks,” say the Neapolitans, “in its own water.” The many meanings of this strange old saw took me onto ripe farm terraces, thickly planted, where every row told a story. Then too, as I sorted out those stories, I recognized finally that they were all, one way or another, my own. That is, the best book I could bring out of my repeated immersions in Naples wouldn’t be journalism or history, but rather a text that combined such conventional elements with speculation and insight entirely my own, the murmurs that filled my head while I was submerged in the Tyrhennian — the very story I’d been living.
In other words, twenty years after it began, I at last claimed my own project, declaring it a “memoir.” This in turn gave the thing a conclusion, one that I’d desired and eventually won, through meditation and hardscrabble. For wasn’t I a new man? Newly remarried, relocated more happily than not, with a shelf full of my own books and a passel of other scholarship and criticism, more esteemed than not? And if that’s where the story ended, then I had the story itself—the one about an old guy born again.
All well and good, but along with story comes a host of craft issues. At the outset of this piece, I used a pair of catchall terms, “sequence” and “suspense.” The other words for it fill the syllabi of seminars in Creative Nonfiction: pacing, grounding, the balance of research and experience and the manipulation of first person. I was constructing a narrative after all, describing a journey of the spirit. For it to compel and convince, each of the stages along the way required its own signal-flare, and each of these had to go off somewhere in Naples. The city limits still set the borders for my odyssey. The very idea of defining limits, however, goes to story. It takes two decades of my life and three millennia of urban life and provides them, together, a pleasing and comprehensible shape.
The ultimate title, this Archeology construct, expresses a sort of contract with the reader. It implies a long stretch of time, but also a system for working through it. A dig has order and process—as does the recipe for a good ragù.
Yet when I speak of my project this way, like something with a clear sense of direction, don’t I sound a bit like a literary agent? Aren’t such compositional concerns all about pleasing potential readers? When someone takes up a book, they like to know they’ll get somewhere, and if an author can deliver, he or she has got a market. Come to think, now ten years past the end of my book’s twenty-year storyline, just calling it a “memoir” smacks of the market. An educated literary man, such as Domini 2.0, has to know that, lately, there’s been no hotter genre in publishing. Surely I could come up with a better name, less of a commodity and more of a quest…
What began as a scribbly and secret affair came to light only after I drew up a contract with the reader, and yet now it can’t help but wander off in still another direction. I wouldn’t have it any other way, actually. I can’t think of a more vivid demonstration for why I sought to spend my second life this way, with the endless surprises of storytelling.
John Domini’s latest book is the memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. He has four novels, including a loose trilogy set in Naples, three books of stories, and essays and criticism all over, including Lit Hub and the New York Times.