October 11, 2019 § 15 Comments
By D. A. Hickman
In an era of sameness and overt conformity, when conventional wisdom outshines a legitimate yearning for personal wisdom, I cling ever more closely to my intuition. The human pack, in other words, runs one way, but I, like Minneapolis native, author Robert Pirsig, am committed to viewing the common path with a skeptical eye before setting out, or wholeheartedly, joining in.
Especially when making seemingly innocuous choices, I avoid mainstream currents by noticing what feels meaningful, as opposed to traditional and automatic. I read slowly, for instance, with intention, books I’ve carefully, or carelessly, sidestepped.
Why not resist the formidable rush of a frayed culture, the oft-perceived need to worship speed, by examining my assumptions and habitual reactions? Besides, investing energy in what I’m sure I don’t want to do is likely to generate a viable path to untapped energy, a multi-layered sense of discovery.
Admittedly, as a discerning author and reader, I’ve brushed aside books because of hasty first-impressions: covers, titles, or slightly strange author photos, that didn’t resonate.
For a painful number of years, I had even avoided Robert Pirsig’s bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for such superficial reasons. A disinterest in an annoying piece of thunderous metal called a motorcycle had led me astray.
But, having studied sociology in graduate school, I was intrigued by the subtitle: An Inquiry into Values. I believe that cultural values lead to profound insights into the underpinnings of society, providing a roadmap to the unspoken, the unnoticed, the abandoned.
Still, sentiments of “I should read it” didn’t get me moving.
An April Death
My husband had a worn twenty-fifth anniversary edition floating around our house, and periodically, it surfaced when we culled books to donate to our used bookstore. Seeing it, I’d pick it up, flip through, and think: later on, when I have time. Then I caught the news.
The 88-year-old author who defied the literary gods in getting Zen published (William Morrow, 1974) had died on April 24, 2017.
The headline hit me with a painful sense of urgency. I’d, in fact, procrastinated so long that Pirsig had perished. The very poignancy of time—its brazen passage, its troubling complications—finally resolved the lingering issue for me.
I found the book, tucked in a bookmark, added it to a sizeable stack of must-read books near my bed. When relaxed, yet focused, and our house is pleasantly quiet, I read these gems—books I’ve wanted to read yet failed to read—two, maybe three, pages at a time. An informal mindfulness practice, if you will. A creative, surprisingly effective, way to row against the fierce current of trends, the monotonous rush to get somewhere, and the exhausting promotion of “popular, must-read books” that rarely reach us intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally. I prefer authors who dare to build their stories without all the glitter—who, like determined explorers, let things deepen slowly, imperceptibly so.
At long last, Pirsig’s Zen, all 425 pages of it, had a real—even honorable—place in my life, and the infamous, yet mysterious, Phaedrus was destined to surface once more.
The author broke through more layers of unjustified resistance when he mentioned South Dakota. I knew, and loved, this terrain. Would his perception of the plains, the wide-open prairie, sound authentic or contrived? Did he “get” the place I call home—the lonely tree near a long stretch of gravel road, the sky that permits no doubt or hesitation, the unique, yet humble, place I’d written about in my book (Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie, William Morrow, 1999)?
The cross-country motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son, Chris, originated in Pirsig’s hometown, Minneapolis, ended in California, but early on, as they approached eastern Dakota, Pirsig aptly described the psychic impact of space and empty roads, noting he felt “lulled” by tranquil thoughts of “wind sweeping…across open fields of the prairie.”
Relishing this surprising personal connection, I looked forward to resuming, without fail, my long overdue journey with Pirsig. And when I read his closing words, I realized, a book I’d senselessly avoided for so long, had almost nothing to do with motorcycles, per se. Meditative in nature, contemplative in style, reading about his observations and personal journey—his deep dive into quality and organizational dynamics—harmonized perfectly with a slow, intentional read. Pirsig’s message came through in neon letters.
Each breath, a critical form of life maintenance; each decision, a link to all the other pieces we must try to understand. Perseverance, patience, and the ability to confront obstacles within by not succumbing to the wild, ever-changing cultural winds are how we unravel the secrets of the universe.
As I noted the two-year anniversary of Pirsig’s death this past year, on April 24, 2019, and gingerly anticipated the 2020 anniversary (Will the planet still be here? What might the noted author tell us about motorcycle trips and the creeping power of climate change?), I felt extremely grateful for an insightful warrior who wrote a book that, unlike us, will never expire. Not even when allowed to collect dust on an old bookshelf.
D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Her upcoming memoir, A Happy Truth: Last Dogs Aren’t Always Last, is about spirited dogs, clever cats, and fortuitous decisions. Previous titles include The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, and Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time. Hickman studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University and completed her undergraduate work at Stephens College. To connect with the author, visit her website at SunnyRoomStudio.com, and find her on Twitter @dhsunwriter or Facebook. At work on a new poetry collection, Sometimes We Fly, Hickman lives in a small college town in eastern South Dakota with her husband and spirited schnauzers, Hannah and Georgia.
September 9, 2019 § 28 Comments
By Lisa Sellge
We try to have lunch together every few years, or that’s what we tell each other. But this time it’s been more than a decade. Once we’ve settled with our not-too-fattening salads, black beans, avocado, we get to the details of life. We tell tales of strange husbands, weird children, we dump our weaknesses on the table and leave behind the Facebook perfection. Life is a struggle. Lunch becomes a one-upmanship of misery. When we get to the part where we tell each other the here-and-now of it, I reveal my MFA endeavors. I try not to go into detail, but they press.
What kind of MFA, they want to know.
What kind of writing?
So, you’re writing about true things.
Well, actually, memoir.
It feels silly to say. I try to explain myself. I pull out the old standby: It’s a cautionary tale. It’s a warning. It’s interesting because ballet is a hidden world. Or it was in the eighties.
You’re writing about ballet?
Yeah, you know, our studio. (There, I said it.)
“There was a lot going on there that you guys didn’t know about,” I tell them.
Hannah is looking at me from across the table, a concerned frown pulling at her forehead.
“Am I in it?” asks Julia.
“Only in reference,” I say, “And the names are changed.” Or will be.
“Is my brother in it?” asks Jane-Ann.
“Well, yes, he’s a minor character. But it’s all good stuff. Nothing he would mind.”
We were together through elementary, junior high and high school. Most of us danced at the Center of Performing arts through at least part of childhood. We married and had kids around the same time. Hannah drove south from Long Beach, Jane-Ann flew in from Vermont. Julia never left. Everyone is chattering and inquisitive about my project except Hannah. She’s sipping unsweetened iced tea through a straw. Her silence is deafening.
I start to wonder if Julia, still the local, has any contact with those long ago personalities that figure so prominently in my story. Would she mention this? The Center of Performing Arts has changed hands since our day. Three of the people concerned are no longer on the planet. Another is quite old.
“No one is recognizable,” I throw in, in case anyone is nervous. But I’m not sure about that.
Specifically, Rebecca, absent from this discussion and the focus of my memoir, is quite recognizable. How many seamstresses worked for a ballet company in our town in the eighties? Realistically, less than three.
So, anyone recognizing my name on a memoir, seeing the cover as I envision it: a white tutu-clad torso in front of a window, hands with needle and thread darning pleats, would pick it up, read the back, wonder, leaf through it skimming for names, recognize none. Perhaps put it down and walk away. I’m holding my breath through this thought. Yes, walk away. Put it down. It’s not for your eyes. Then whose eyes is it for?
Two years and 250 pages had passed when I was 99% sure my memoir was complete. Remembering my best friend Hannah’s silence, I decided to send the online link to her. But before I sent the document, I sent a text:
Hey Han, remember a while back I told you I was writing a memoir? I have a meeting with an agent coming up and, while I’m not sure how that will turn out, I wondered if you’d want to read it since your character as “my best friend” is prominent. This project began as a creative thesis for my MFA but since a few people have said I should submit it for publication I’ve decided to change names and some situations and go for it. You’ll recognize a lot of it even though everyone is disguised somewhat.
I waited. When Hannah didn’t answer right away, I began to panic. I imagined her scorn. Her eye rolls at the self-indulgence of it all. How could I explain that memoir is about perception and individual experience? Not a documentary or autobiography. Not journalism. But an attempt to make sense of life through writing with the intent to share a unique perspective.
I mentally scanned my manuscript for scenes of Hannah. I began to worry that perhaps she’d find a scene insulting or too revealing. Was I giving away her secrets by revealing mine? And yet these things are key to my story. I re-read it as if she were standing over my shoulder. My older sister, who also stars in my small coming-of-age circle, was the first to read it and signed off on my memories as either valid or too long ago for her to challenge. Would Hannah do the same? And what of Rebecca? And yet, this is not about her, it is about me.
About a week later my phone buzzed an incoming text from Hannah. Relief spread over me as I read:
Hey, I’m so sorry not to have replied sooner. Of course, I remember you telling us of your book! It sounds fabulous and I’d love to read it. Please send the link.”
And so, I did.
When I began my memoir, I had a story to tell about passion and obsession. And about death. I had a story to tell about growing up with strict discipline, both in a German household and a ballet studio, and what it was like to rebel against rigidity, looking for freedom of expression. Some of the things in my story are universal, and the things that are not, are intriguing. Or at least I think they are. Most people experience first love in those early adolescent years.
If anyone did pick up my memoir from a bookstore shelf, say Rebecca herself, what would she think? Have I represented her fairly? Have I made her someone she is not? Writing from journals that were as obsessive as my focus, I believe I captured her quite realistically, but perhaps not thoroughly. After all, I was caught up in my vision of her. I can’t know exactly how she saw herself or even how she saw me. I can guess that she might remember me as a troublemaker. Never one to fly under the radar, for better or worse.
Last spring, Moby, the nineteen-eighties musical maverick, slammed into public shame with the publication of his 2019 confessional memoir, Then it Fell Apart. Weeks after its release, actress, Natalie Portman, who is profiled as a love interest in the memoir, claimed in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that the alleged relationship never occurred. Moby was left to defend his work in the public eye.
Initially brazen and self-righteous on social media, he quickly buckled. “As some time has passed,” Moby wrote in an Instagram post on May 25, 2019, just weeks after publication, “I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then It Fell Apart, are very valid. I also fully recognize that it was truly inconsiderate of me to not let her know about her inclusion in the book beforehand.”
It’s been about a week since I emailed the finished memoir to Hannah. And though I am not holding my breath or wringing my hands over her possible responses, in the back of my mind is the expectation that someday soon I will receive some sort of feedback and there will most likely be a mixture of positives and negatives. But I have made peace with the fact that writing is a public business and I am not the only personality at stake here. It’s a load off my mind to know she will not be taken by surprise someday in a bookstore if all goes well. And if she hates it, I will listen and alter what concerns her if I can do so without writing her out completely. But if I know Hannah, she would hate that even more.
Lisa Sellge is a classical ballet instructor and writer in the final throes of a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Alaska. Her work has appeared recently in Atticus Review, 3rd Street Beach Writers Anthology, and NatureWriters.com.
August 27, 2019 § 6 Comments
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts. Part One, “Structure is Everything,” ran yesterday, and can be found here.
Part 2: Finding the Persona of the Narrator and Other Craft Elements in Creative Nonfiction
JONES: Let’s talk about craft elements that you discuss in The Situation and The Story. You described how, when you were writing Fierce Attachments, you came to the realization that the voice you habitually lived in wouldn’t do. Can you talk a little bit about the process of discovering what you call “the other in oneself who can complicate the subject and avoid writing the story with cardboard characters”?
GORNICK: Well that has to do with a lot of soul searching. When I say the ‘other in oneself,’ I mean really digging hard to see how you contributed to the situation. Because otherwise there’s no drama. I wrote an essay on letter-writing, which is in Approaching Eye Level, many years ago. And the way it started was I read a piece in the New York Review of Books by one Englishman reviewing a book by another Englishman in which they were both bemoaning the loss of letter-writing, saying we all grew up with letter writing and no one writes letters any more. I thought about how I really grew up in a letter-writing world, in a working class tenement in the Bronx. My mother wrote letters, the next-door neighbor wrote letters, the doctor wrote letters, everybody wrote letters. So this review was bemoaning the loss of letter writing and I was reading the review, right here in my apartment, with a friend, and I was bemoaning the fact that I live in world where there’s no letter writing anymore. And this man, my friend, got irritated with my bitching and he said, ‘Oh, fuck that, why don’t you write letters? Don’t give me the world, the world, is doing this to you and that to you.’ That’s what it sounded like, the world is doing this to me. ‘Oh, I feel so terrible, the world seemed so much richer when we were all writing letters, now nobody does.’ And as soon as he said that, I had my essay.
Now that was a personal essay. So, I sit down to write this essay, and I’m aware of the fact that I’m going to use this particular narrator to show how this world has changed, using myself first and foremost. Once I decide to do that, then I start to inspect all the times, in another time when I would have written a letter, but this time instead I picked up the telephone. This is on the cusp of email, we don’t even talk any more (laughs).
JONES: True (laughs). We don’t even email. It’s text.
GORNICK: Oh, I don’t go that far. I only do email. So, back to this essay, I had in my mind the controlling outlook of always knowing I was going to be reaching for the moment when I was going to inspect my own feelings, which is, of course, how it all changes, to see how I had internalized picking up the phone instead of writing a letter. And that was the person, the narrator, who was going to write that story. And it was a great pleasure to hit with such particularity on that position and that condition. And that’s the personal essay. I don’t know….what was my point? (laughs)
JONES: I’d asked you to describe the process of discovering the other self.
GORNICK: Well, that’s what I mean..
JONES: The investigation..being a little hard on oneself, so to speak.
GORNICK: Yes, yes.
JONES: Not letting oneself off the hook.
GORNICK: That’s right, exactly.
JONES: Instead of creating this ‘woe is me self’—the victim.
GORNICK: Right, precisely.
JONES: The monster has to have humanity or it’s not interesting.
GORNICK: Absolutely. But the reason that writing political social polemic lost its charm for me, which it had when I was a young woman writing for The Village Voice, was I really got tired, even though I feel the weight of the terrible world we live in, I got tired of writing from that perspective, of accusing the world of not being what I wanted it to be.
JONES: Like a harangue.
GORNICK: Yeah, it’s a rant, no matter how good it is. In the end, it’s a bewailing…I mean political journalists should do it; that’s their job. But not a writer, not a writer who is in the business of fashioning out of the expressiveness of language, and the power of structure, something else.
JONES: I also think there’s no place for the reader in that kind of writing.
GORNICK: No. That’s right. The reader’s not invited. The reader is the passive receiver. Just sit there and shut up.
JONES: And literary writing not only engages the imagination, but gives you space to think.
GORNICK: Absolutely. I certainly hope I’m letting the reader in.
JONES: Do you have any other recommendations for strategies to find the voice for a personal essay writer or memoir writer? For instance, how do you approach the rewriting?
GORNICK: For myself?
JONES: Yes, and as advice for others. Stuff that comes out in first draft doesn’t usually work very well.
GORNICK: No. Well, what can I tell you. In my case, it’s all intuition. You read what you write and then you see, am I losing the subject? Have I got the subject? I can’t really tell you how; my gut tells me.
JONES: Sometimes, does reading something else give you ideas?
GORNICK: Well, everything, conversation. You’re stuck at something, you go away, you live your life for that day, you take a walk, you have a coffee, meet a friend, read a book, or a newspaper, or something, and somewhere this writing is on your mind, and something clarifies. There are no prescriptions for it.
JONES: You talk about tone of sentence and syntax in The Situation and The Story, and give a lot of examples. About the very different kind of writing that comes out of Seymour Krim, for instance—and he reappears in the Odd Woman and the City—versus, say, The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff.
GORNICK: Well, Krim was a very self-conscious Beat writer. The Beats were all tone.
JONES: Any examples of books you’ve read lately, beside those you mention in S&S that display innovative syntax, that particularly fits the story well?
GORNICK: I never can think when that question is asked. I need to see a list. Actually, I was just recently reading the work of an American writer, a man whom I just met recently, but who’s been around forever, in fact, he’s my age, Jerome Charyn. He writes in a very jazzy personal way and the way he’s writing is very much what he’s writing about. People are doing all kinds of interesting things.
In the end, it all depends on how smart you are and how much you know to make the book interesting. If you isolate a story, and do it well, it’s not that hard. I mean it’s hard to write it, it’s not that hard to have the idea. But there are no prescriptions for it.
Read Part One
Read Part Three
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.
August 26, 2019 § 4 Comments
The publication of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments in 1987 was a landmark event, establishing Gornick as a distinctive voice in the genre of memoir. Now, more than thirty years later, that book is experiencing renewed life in Europe, has been translated into ten languages, and recently earned first place in the New York Times‘ “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.”
Gornick followed up about a dozen years later with The Situation and The Story, explaining how she created the persona of an “unsurrogated narrator” to serve the story she wanted to tell in her memoir. The Situation and The Story became an indispensable guide to the literary strategies of creative nonfiction, popular in the classroom and often quoted.
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of the memoir Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts.
Part 1: Writing and Teaching The Situation and The Story
KATHLEEN B. JONES: You wrote The Situation and The Story almost 20 years ago.
VIVIAN GORNICK Oh, my god, is it that long?? (laughs)
JONES: What motivated you to write that book?
GORNICK: Well, actually, it started because somebody else came to me, a teacher of writing, and wanted to do this book together. I can’t remember how I knew her. She came to me with this proposal that we write a textbook together. And, of course, the lure was, we were going to make a fortune, because we would write a textbook that would be adopted all over the country (laughs). And, I agreed to it and got involved in it enough to see it really did interest me. We went along for a while but we really weren’t getting anywhere. We didn’t work well together, and I didn’t really know how to structure it for a textbook. She became, I thought—but who knows—she became exasperated with the difficulties that I posed. Probably it was out of frustration we were not going to make this thing work. So, I said, let’s abandon this. And once we abandoned it I realized that I had really become interested in writing, completely on my own, my version of what it meant to create a nonfiction persona. I realized I had been reading this stuff, and writing this stuff, and teaching this stuff for fifteen years by then. I thought it would be a piece of cake. But, it wasn’t, of course; it was really hard to structure. I thought it would take six months. It took two years (laughs).
JONES: It actually has become kind of a bible…
GORNICK: Yes, it has…
JONES: In many places…
GORNICK: I know; it’s taught all over the country. I’m amazed by it myself.
JONES: So if you were writing the book now, is there any way you would change it?
GORNICK: No! I look at it and I’m amazed at how good it is (laughs). I can’t believe I wrote it…It was really hard to write. I wrote a whole manuscript and I knew I hadn’t gotten it right. I just could feel in my gut it wasn’t in the right shape. I’m really a writer who needs an editor all the time; there’s a certain constipation in my own way of writing. I telescope too much in first drafts. I’m not sufficiently aware of what the reader actually has to know, or not know. I need somebody to set me straight. And a very talented editor at FSG all those years ago read [the manuscript]. He was brilliant about what I needed to do and how I needed to restructure it. Structure was everything. Just as, in the life of nonfiction writing, structure is everything. It took quite a while for me to figure out the elements that were necessary. The most important thing was developing my idea of the persona… which I lay out in the very beginning. The girl who is doing the eulogy and how she knows who she is in relation to the subject and therefore she knows how to write—that was very important.
JONES: In The Situation and The Story, you wrote about why you thought memoir writing was, at that time, felt as a particularly urgent call. You said modernist novels had been bypassed by this genre. Now, some critics declare the age of memoir writing to be over. You might read—ironically, in a New York Times book review of some new memoir—a critic saying she thought we were done with all this, but this book has really done something different with the form.
GORNICK: I really don’t know what to think. The reason that is said is because we live now in a time when every deluge is just gigantic. In a previous time, when one literary genre replaced another, you might have had hundreds, now you have thousands of instances. The memoir, the memoir, the memoir. So it’s a glut on the market.
Look, the fact of the matter is, most memoirs are not literature, and most novels are not literature. When a good one comes along, its power is felt all over again. I do believe that the passion for the novel has run its course for the time being. It doesn’t feel, not to me at any rate, that one looks forward to the next novel. You know, it’s so hard for me to have any really organized opinions about all this.
All I know is this: I grew up in a book culture which means that that book culture never had huge numbers of devotees. Where people took literature seriously, we all read the same books, we all read the same reviews, and we waited for the next book of a writer to come out. The reviewers in the New York Times Book Review were of a really high order. You had that whole generation of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, all those men who were very serious critics writing the Sunday Times Book Review. You don’t have anything of the sort anymore. All that has just dissolved. So what we have is this gigantic entertainment world and a world of celebrity where writers have become celebrities. It all feels hit or miss to me. I remain devoted to looking for the same experience in a book that I always look for. And when I say a book is good or not good it’s out of a mindset that was formed 50 years ago. So I really don’t know what to make of this business—the age of memoir. We’re talking about 20 years. I mean, we’re too old (laughter) to subscribe to that sort of thing as ‘the age’ or, better yet, ‘the era’.
JONES: Say more about that.
GORNICK: I do think the memoir will continue to be written more readily than the novel, and only a fraction of them are works that will last. I mean, they come and go, and most of them are not literature. They remain books of confession. Somebody writes a memoir about not being able to give birth to a baby and then what follows is her encounter with fertility clinics. There’s that. Or then there’s alcohol and there’s incest and there’s just a glut of stuff. I wrote [The Situation and The Story] out of what I thought was a serious consideration of serious books. I know people now who teach courses out of this book. They make their students read the books that I refer to. And the same with my other collection, The End of the Novel of Love, they teach out of that. And I’m thrilled by it. But they do it because they think those books I wrote about are serious examples and they can run the rest of time. There will never be a time when those books will not look good.
JONES: Surely those books you cited aren’t the only ones?
GORNICK: Oh, of course. There are always others.
JONES: Have you been in contact with people who use The Situation and The Story the way you describe?
JONES: Do they talk about how they structure their classes?
GORNICK: No, and that’s interesting. I should ask. I never have asked that. I shouldn’t say I’m in contact with people. I meet people all the time who tell me they teach it but I never have asked how exactly they teach it. Well, you probably know more.
JONES: I did teach it in a writing class.
GORNICK: How did you use it?
JONES: I used it as the main way to think about how to structure an essay and find the language and persona necessary to tell whatever the story was. And then we looked at other texts. Interestingly enough, this was not in a literary writing class, but in a course about writing a master’s thesis, with people from a variety of disciplines.
JONES: Some students were creative writers; others were writing in philosophy, or anthropology.
JONES: Each one of them had the situation of their research that she needed to turn into a story.
GORNICK: Exactly. Very good.
JONES: So that’s how I used it and tried to make it fit all these different disciplinary fields.
GORNICK: That must have been fun.
JONES: No matter what your field, you still have to write and you have to write well. You may be constrained by the structure of what a university tells you must be done for a thesis. But the narrative, the story, can bear all those same qualities you described.
GORNICK: My niece, who is in social policy, writes reports nonstop. She understands you have to be telling a story all the time. With her, it’s easy to see what her situation is—it’s the background of her discipline. But she knows, within that, you must tell a story and she’s made use of that. Just to clarify on that concept should help you.
JONES: Are you still teaching?
GORNICK: No, no. I try not to. I taught a couple of years ago in Iowa and I swore I’d rather go on welfare than do this again (laughs).
JONES: When you were teaching, how did you structure your workshops?
GORNICK: I had a very simple method. The workshop would just concentrate on the immediacy of what they were writing. I made all my students write 1,000 words every other week. A three-page piece. And then we would workshop them. I did not give out assignments, but the pieces would generate themselves out of the previous week’s discussion. I had no pedagogy.
JONES: Assigned readings?
GORNICK: For sure. A lot of the books I refer to in the books I wrote came out of those courses.
JONES: No in-class writing exercises?
GORNICK: No. these were graduate students. Gotta write.
JONES: At the end of The Situation and The Story, you wrote that all the years of teaching led you to conclude that you can’t teach people how to write but you can teach them how to read. How do you teach people how to read?
GORNICK: You depend upon them learning from the critiquing, if you’re going to teach people how to gain judgment about their own work—and what else are all these MFA programs about? They’re allowing people to write and to hear their own writing read in the company of others so that they see how it hits a reader, when it seems right and when it’s absolutely wrong. And through the critiquing, which keeps concentrating on the relation between the persona and the story in the situation, you learn by example. If you can’t learn by example you can’t learn. There’s nothing for you to memorize, no body of information that’s being passed on. It’s all a matter of experience; it’s a matter of doing it and hearing it done, and learning from that.
Now, I taught for 6 or 7 years at the University of Arizona, a perfectly standard, straightforward, conventional MFA program. It happened to be filled with perfectly ordinary people teaching. It also happened that David Foster Wallace was a student there. And he kept writing his stuff and he kept being told it was no good. Not a well-crafted novel.
Now, when you have someone like that, all bets are off. So, I think what it did for him was, it showed him he had to go his own way. And he had genius. He wrote Infinite Jest, a thousand or so page novel, soon after leaving the program.
So these programs are for the most ordinary of the ordinary. First of all, very, very few writers emerge from them. Very few. The mass of people go on to other lives. They’re not writers. They’re not writers; they’re wanna-bes. And so what you can teach, as I said, is you can teach someone how to read their own writing better. You can’t teach them how to do it better, unless , if someone has some writing talent, they can make better use of it because you’re being taught how to criticize yourself.
JONES: I think the books that you read while you’re in a program enable you to see how to write better.
JONES: Because you look at them and take them apart differently, instead of just being immersed in the plot.
GORNICK: Right, how did I become a writer? Out of City College’s English Department. Because of all the great books people put in my hands.
Part Two of this interview: The Other in Oneself
Part Three of this interview: Of Reading and Culture
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.
July 17, 2019 § 10 Comments
In William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, Steve Almond discusses a book that changed his life—John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner—and argues that novels are not merely books, but instead “manuals for living.”
Almond never disappoints: his prose is always powerful, provocative. He is a respected teacher and literary advocate. He is funny. He is generous.
So we tracked him down to ask a few questions about his idiosyncratic book-about-a-book and Steve’s prolific, wide-ranging writing life.
Here we go:
Dinty W. Moore: You write in your book that prior to encountering the novel Stoner, you “assumed the point of literature was to document the lives of the driven and depraved, the lawless and lust-riven, in short: the memorable… It hadn’t occurred to me that the story of every life is, from a cosmic perspective, one of obscurity. You are alive for some brief span, then you die.”
Is this a revelation limited to the fiction writer side of you, or did it influence your view of, and writing of, memoir and nonfiction over the years?
Steve Almond: Yeah, that line “You are alive for some brief span, then you die” is vintage Almond — you can hear the guy making a rather desperate play for the Beach Read crowd.
What I’m saying here applies to all genres of writing, and more broadly to all human endeavor, to the delusion that we can achieve “immortality” by means of our ambitions. The truth is, most of the meaning we find and create in our life comes in the private moments during which we seek to pay attention (and therefore love) the people around us, not in our striving public deeds.
I’m not trying to depress people here. I’m simply trying to get Americans in particular to pull their heads out of their asses, to abandon the ridiculous idea that a life is worth living, or regarding, if it involves public acclaim, the killing of many people, the accumulation of great wealth and power, the fucking of a celebrity, etc. We’re really lost as a culture. How else could we wind up with such a cruel and vapid leader?
That’s why Stoner registers to me as a revolutionary book. It posits the perfectly absurd notion that what ranks as heroic and redemptive is the act of bearing witness to your life. Stoner suffers a great deal in his life. He betrays his parents and never forgives himself. His marriage is a failure. He fails as a father. His career goes nowhere. By the math of the obituary, he’s a nobody, a never was. But at the same time, he leads a life of deep meaning. He rescues himself from a life of agricultural servitude. His soul is awakened by literature. He works very hard to be a good teacher, to transmit love and attention to his students. He experiences a transcendent passion.
And thus, at the end of his life, he’s able to silence the voice within himself (within all of us) that says: Hey, you were a failure. He never amounted to much. Nobody took notice. He delivers this remarkable line, maybe the most hopeful line in all of literature:
He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure—as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been.
Omigod. You guys. That’s what I want to feel at the end. Hell, it’s what I want to feel every minute of my life.
Dinty: You mention the “swamp of reality television” and a mania that has infiltrated our literary culture, “with agents and editors stalking ‘larger than life’ stories ripe for cross promotion” alongside “our hunger for sensation and narcissistic reward, our readiness to privilege action over contemplation. Our tireless compulsion to be known by the world rather than seeking to know ourselves.” Though I don’t think you mean it this way, some of what you say here echoes recent critics of the memoir, especially those who question modern trauma narratives. What about this? What would the novelist John Williams have to say about the various memoir controversies and dust-ups of the past decade or so?
Steve: The point of Stoner—or at least one of the central points—is that what matters isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of attention paid to that life. That’s what marks any piece of autobiographical work as special, from St. Augustine to Knausgard to Didion to Laymon. It’s the author’s attention to his or her own experience, and their determination to go beyond self-regard into the more dangerous and thrilling province of self-reflection.
What I’m talking about in regards to reality TV, or “larger than life” stories is the voice of the marketplace, the absurd (and again, quintessentially American) idea that what makes a life worthy is some garish “hook.” It’s this kind of capitalist pressure that induces writers such as James Frey to lie to the reader, to gin up drama by making up stuff that didn’t happen to them, or by causing authors to lie about their own identities and experiences.
The entire point of Stoner is that every human life is full of remarkable drama, because every human being comes equipped with an inner life, a set of yearnings and fears and confusions that are concealed from the world and yet persistently, unavoidably, experienced. It is the mission of all art, but literary art in particular, to engage with this inner life.
The problem with fake memoirs is simply that the writers are lying to their readers. Because the definition of creative nonfiction really isn’t that complicated, in my view. It’s a radically subjective version of events that objectively took place. The moment you start making stuff up you’re engaged in the making of another kind of writing: fiction. Which is just wonderful. But you can’t bullshit the reader about what you’re up to.
Because your readers are all you’ve got. They are your allies, your collaborators. You owe them clarity and you owe them truth. There’s no need to pander to the lesser parts of them, to chase ambulances or flog the language for beauty. Pursue the truth–tenderly, ruthlessly–and the residue of that pursuit is beauty.
Dinty W. Moore founded and continues to edit Brevity and the Brevity Blog.
June 28, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Amy Wright
Know what I think is refreshing? Clean lakes, blue glass, mint mouthwash, and rain. Also, people who express profound emotion or offer insights earned from hard experiences. What I do not find refreshing as a matter of course are essay collections that avoid memoir. So, when the first three reviews I read of Brian Phillips’ debut essay collection, Impossible Owls, described its “refreshing lack of memoir,” I had to wonder why critics were praising what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.
Apparently, memoirs are so in need of humbling, or memoirists in such need of a comedown, reviewers have to work across genre to accomplish it. I get it; I’ve read bad memoirs too. But I’ve also read paltry sonnets and shoddy detective novels without reviewers lauding those working in other modes for avoiding them altogether.
I suspect there’s more at play than genre bias. And if there were too few reviews of Phillips’ collection, which originated on ESPN’s Grantland and MTV News, I would devote more attention to the book itself. As it is, it seems superfluous to trumpet strengths already heralded in popular venues. Instead, I’d like to call attention to how this book’s reception reflects a bias in publishing.
To appreciate why the “refreshing” descriptor is at odds with Impossible Owls, you need to know that it opens with a reportage on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race titled “Out in the Great Alone.” This thoroughly researched piece details the threats of death to sled dogs, mushers, and any spectator who dares, like the author, to follow the race in a bush plane with a pilot who collects stories of bush plane crashes, and who, according to the book’s acknowledgments, died while leading a training expedition in the Alaskan wilderness.
There are other unrefreshing examples, including “Man-Eaters,” a feature on tigers that have been hunted, killed, and skinned in the jungles of India for over one hundred years; “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come,” an essay into the early work of a Russian animator who fell into a creative block that has lasted over four decades; and “Sea of Crises,” a braided story involving a warehouse fire, a decapitation, and Japan’s cultural shame that the greatest living sumo wrestler was born in Mongolia. Impossible Owls is a provocative, educational, wanderlustful, and beautiful construct, but it is not refreshing.
It is also not published without consideration of a diverse audience. If tiger hunters seem stereotypically masculine, so might the contents of Queen Elizabeth’s handbag, as we learn in “Once and Future Queen,” be deemed feminine. The collection ranges wide from essay to essay, including an investigation into UFO experiencers and a cultural study of sci-fi that Phillips undertakes while healing from a ski accident. Throughout, he does well what nonfiction writers are paid by frequently male editors to do well: he dismisses himself—except to show his hand on the throttle of a plane that he learned to fly in case he needed to land it in an emergency. (I can’t help but read such moments in light of why men are more often solicited for intensive field-research assignments.)
But my issue here is not that Phillips received rare, dream assignments, because he demonstrates the hard work that went into them, but that reviewers fail to notice that these stories are inherently larger than life, and not about him. Instead, they celebrate how Phillips “decentralizes his own presence,” as if centralizing his presence would make sense in this context. Such readings are another form of memoir bashing, which is often misogynistic.
In fact, Phillips does call attention to himself in a number of instances in the book, and not always in flattering postures. He emerges most clearly in the final essay, “Not Your Typical Love Story,” which braids the stories of his grandparents, who drowned together, and an oil baron who marries his niece. Apparently, reviewers who were relieved that Phillips “turns his investigations outward rather than inward” neglected to notice his confession in the final pages.
After his grandparents died, when he was eleven- or twelve-years-old, Phillips went to a child psychologist who asked him if he cried when they drowned. He hadn’t, but he knows that isn’t the right answer. So, he makes up a story that he cried alone in the bathtub, rather than explain how he really felt, which he didn’t trust the psychologist to understand. From there, he begins a search for understanding and the freedom to feel that leads him to the world of books—suggesting, in fact, that Impossible Owls wants to be read as a paean to our capacity to emote and to express ourselves in all the ways we find available to us, which would indeed be refreshing.
Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and six chapbooks. Individual essays appear or are forthcoming in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and Ninth Letter. You can find her online at: www.awrightawright.com, and on Twitter @amymwright
May 30, 2019 § 9 Comments
By Thomas Larson
In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.
This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.
And second, considering the 1500-year gap between Augustine and Merton, leaving out for the moment Tolstoy and Thérèse who are late 1800s, other writers were either censored by the church as dogmatically unsuitable or by the individual author as nakedly over-personal. Yes, during this time, there’s The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, famous Christian tracts. But these testaments are wholly mystical (without the “I”) or wholly prescriptive (with the “I” as Everyman). Neither explores the unsteady, vulnerable self, de rigueur to memoir.
Something happened 70 years ago that accounts for a change in how we view the landscape of liminal writing. Authors moved from nonpersonal expression of religious community to personal expression of unchurched experience, trading religious authority for personal authority. The religious text—an ordained, mythic, creation story, written or inspired by a God with enough moral injunctions to make a courtesan blush—gave way to, perhaps birthed, the spiritual text—a self-creation story, an inquiry about how the self has been spiritualized. The latter required one to have lived and to have written a book with consummate literary value, daring and eloquent, bemused by or surrendering to purpose.
Removed from the religious text was the author’s loyalty or faith in its founding principles: primal sin, priestly clubbishness, resurrection and salvation through Christ. Once the fundamentalist injunctions lost their molten, magnetic core, the writer was free to use the artistic forms of personal narrative and meditative essay as new ways to engage her enigmatic moments of the inexplicable or the numinous.
With Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, a spring Jonquil emerges: the spiritual author pushes away from the idea that the writer is reflecting what has already happened in her religious/spiritual experience and pushes toward enacting that experience through the writing itself. Yes, one goes on a quest, walks El Camino in Spain, or fasts for enlightenment at the Abbey of Gethsemani. But the real quest for the writer is the writing, the endurance of mind it takes to produce, sustain, and communicate the deepest of insights. If the writing of the book becomes a spiritual quest as well, then the evocation of spirit becomes an aesthetic pursuit.
Thus, the appeal of spirituality in our time is less expressive of an allegiance to a faith and more expressive of a learned, adaptive behavior, often away from faith and toward a restoration of ambiguity, a treasuring of doubt. What else is art but enacting our existential enigmas when, as is often the case, meaning dictated by institutions and “patented wisdom” is as out of touch with the times as a landline.
I don’t think “spiritual but not religious” (no one says the opposite, religious but not spiritual) means to replace “religious” mysteries with New Age hocus-pocus: See, for example, the missionary guidance of spiritual dog-walking or spiritual tidying-up (each subject with its author-and-book brand). Spirituality is not about settling down, is not about institutionalization, and is not a do-over of religious meetinghouses and commodities—refurbished warehouses as Zendos, catechistic travel books about the Vatican.
The spiritual is supposed to engage our lost selves, not our found ones. That for every authentic memoir about the inner life of the wounded, scarred postmodern pilgrim, there are one hundred how-to guides by professionalized self-seekers is part and parcel of what’s been unleashed by the abandonment of religion in the millennial era. I am highly suspect of this rush to codify the New Age into bullet-points.
If there are other ways to explore the mysteries of the self, of chance, of dreams, of alternate spatial and temporal dimensions, of mortality—and these pursuits are outside traditional churches, their communities and texts—then the question is invited: How do we search? The operable verb here is to explore. I often wonder how people can explore anything about themselves and the dark intractability of their lives, in a post-religious world, without an expressive means (writing, art, sculpture, video, film, dance, music), let alone communicate to others what they may and may not have discovered.
I think critics have pressed art and the artist to sit too close to representation. Though it may, art does not represent experience, not primarily. Art enacts experience. And, preferentially, not the experience of the past but of the present—action painting, live video, improvised music, the author writing the self into surprising being. All these explorations to me are what I would call part of a spiritual aesthetic. Because these voyages into the unknown are based on no ageless canon or chiseled commandments but, rather, materialize in the artist something he or she had no idea was there—because it wasn’t there, until the artist invented it.
Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.