April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
April 22, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Kim Hinson
I gripped my mouse in a trembly hand. I’d just registered for New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed’s Writing Camp, and wanted to find out exactly what I was in for. Scrolling through her website, I nervously clicked the link for the Esalen Institute—location of the camp. This was my first famous-person-led writing event and I was in a good, old-fashioned tizzy at the thought of actually meeting and learning from such a wonderful writer.
“Calm down,” I told myself. “It’s just a writing camp, for crying out loud.”
I explored Esalen’s lovely, photo-filled website, repeatedly mumbling, “Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Power,” to steady myself. Searching for a map of the grounds, I figured that my first priority was to find out where the bathrooms were. Not for obvious reasons, but so I could take my youngest, introvert-iest daughter’s advice to hide out and calm my nerves in the privacy of a bathroom stall.
The more I clicked, the more I relaxed. My eyes lingered on words like “well-spring of energy” and “convergence of mountains and water that is the Big Sur coastline.” I took a deep breath and pictured myself on the beach doing a little shell collecting between workshops. More phrases from the website soothed my lily-livered thoughts—“healing lives”, “retreat center”, “educational institute”. This Esalen Institute sounded more and more relaxing and less and less intimidating. Oh! And “inspiring beauty” and “unparalleled intellectual history.” Now that’s a place I could love!
I clicked on the Visit tab and scrolled down to the Frequently Asked Questions link. Calm now, I casually strolled through other people’s ordinary-type questions starting with—“Is there a Shuttle or Van Service to Esalen?” And at the bottom of page one, “Can I bring my child?” Awwww. So I’ll be among people who love their children, too. I smiled and relaxed even more when I read the answer: “Yes, as long as they’re supervised.” Okay. That makes sense. That’s what I’d say if I were running the place. Page two questions—“What payment methods/credit cards do you accept?” Oh, good. A practical question. I sighed, thought about getting some milk and cookies and let my eyes drift to the last few questions on page three. My eyes bugged and I nearly had a heart attack on the spot. “Must I Get Naked?” someone asked, and “Is Esalen a Nudist Colony?” But no, I thought. Those were just prank questions slipped in by some … prankster. Writer Prankster even.
I clicked the question and Pow! The answer: “The hot springs at Esalen have been in use for over 6,000 years and are clothing-optional. Nudity is common in the baths and the swimming pool but by no means mandatory. We encourage each individual to find their own edge between comfort and growth, either wearing a swimsuit or not.”
Now wait just a ding-dang minute here.
Heart aflutter, I shakily wondered exactly when a pounding heart turned into an honest-to-goodness heart attack. I decided to join the exclusive Facebook group created especially for Cheryl Strayed Esalen Writers Camp attendees. Clearly I needed to scope out the nature of the actual writers I’d (maybe) be associating with.
The first post was from another new attendee—someone who’d never been to Esalen, was nervous, and wanted to know what to bring. One reply suggested bringing layers of clothes, and then, regarding swimming suits, something like, “You’ll feel more naked with a suit on than without.” And it ended cheerfully with, “See you there!”
After a lengthy consultation with, and upon review and approval from my best writer friend, I decided to post my own Newbie Note on the Facebook page:
Hello lovely Esalen Writers! I’ll be new this year too. And Hoo-boy, from what I read in another post, it looks like I’ll be feeling like the naked-est gal in the whole durn swimming pool, what with my black, turtleneck swimming suit, my retro, ankle-length swim cape, my classic, stretch-fit, silicone swim cap, and my knee-high water boots. But I reckon I can handle it, especially if you’ll all kindly avert your eyes whilst I’m in your midst.
That post got an immediate “I’m with you!” from one person and then roughly twenty, “Oh you’ve got to try it! You’ll love it!!!” posts after which I stopped reading and nearly keeled over.
I don’t say private body part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. And I definitely don’t want to be in the immediate presence of other people’s unclothed, private body parts. My people keep private things private. I shakily assured myself that no amount of writerly peer pressure could change this girl’s modesty policy.
Before keeling over, I went online and bought two separate and totally serious Accidental Death and Dismemberment policies, leaving lots and lots of money to my husband and three daughters upon my seemingly imminent Death by being exposed, overwhelmed, and overcome by the nudity loving writers of Esalen.
The happy conclusion to this self-inflicted psychological thriller is that not only did I not feel pressured to get naked, and not only did I not see anyone else get naked, but instead, my writing spirit was completely refreshed, exhilarated, and energized. The presentations and workshops—led by several brilliant, successful writers—were creative, informative, and inspiring in every way.
Last summer Cheryl Strayed retired as the leader, but the Esalen Writers Camp, now led by authors Pam Houston and Samantha Dunn, continues in full strength. With distinguished returning and new faculty that includes Lidia Yuknavitch, Steve Almond, and Lynell George, my final thought on this magical camp is, “Wow.”
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. She believes that finding a home—a capital H Home—and having a good horse are what life’s all about. Add a lot of great books to that mix and Poof! It’s Heaven on Earth. Find out more about Kim and see lots of pictures at http://kimhinson.com/
March 3, 2015 § 2 Comments
We are extending the deadline to submit student scholarship applications for the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, which is scheduled for May 29-31 on the Ashland University main campus. The new deadline is March 15, 2015
River Teeth is offering four scholarships to students currently enrolled in writing programs (graduate or undergraduate). All registration fees will be waived for the recipients of the scholarships. Other expenses (travel, room, board) are the responsibility of the scholarship recipient.
This year’s conference will feature Cheryl Strayed, author of the New York Times bestsellers, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things; and Jerald Walker, author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award and the L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction. In addition to these featured guest speakers, the weekend conference will also include seminars, panels, book signings, manuscript consultations, and discussion with other established and emerging writers.
More information on the Conference and scholarship competition can be found here: http://www.riverteethjournal.com/blog/2015/03/03/scholarship-deadline-extended-to-march-15
October 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
Strayed opens with a shot across the bow:
Would we ever think to ask if this is a golden age for men essayists? Is it even credible to use the phrase “men essayists”? Why does it sound incorrect in a way that “women essayists” doesn’t? And why does a writer like me — female, feminist, familiar with the discreet and overt forms of sexism in the literary world and beyond — bristle when presented with such a query, one undoubtedly intended to celebrate rather than diminish the achievements of a category of people I admire and to which I belong?
And she’s got a point there. Is what’s celebrated about women writers also ghettoizing them? Are you a woman essayist or a man essayist, both, neither, or something in between? Does your gender identity identify your work?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
April 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
Author Blake Butler recently spread One Hundred Literary Rumors over on the Vice blog. Apparently, a few of our nonfiction brethren are a little wackier than we knew them to be. Or at least according to Butler:
— Though he can see fine, Michael Martone prefers to read braille.
— Steve Almond’s childhood nickname was “Winkles.”
— Cheryl Strayed suffered a three-week phase where she could eat nothing but chopped walnuts.
— Lorrie Moore won’t play Monopoly unless she can be both the banker and the iron.
Butler offers up lots of other juicy tidbits about our literary heroes and heroines, but there are many that he has missed. What (friendly, fictional) rumors do you think are missing about our prominent nonfiction brethren? Drop them below in the comments, if they aren’t too slanderous.
March 5, 2013 § 9 Comments
I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.
I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.
I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.
With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)
On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.
It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.
First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.
Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.
The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.
If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.
Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Elizabeth Kadetsky:
Day One—in which I rent a bicycle for the week.
The bike shop guy, like bike shop guys everywhere, is tattooed, scruffy. In an offhand in gesture, he flicks a tress of hair from his face. Then he says: “Now don’t forget a light if you’re riding at night.” He speaks in a Melbourne accent, which proves to be not Crocodile Dundee so much as evening news in London spoken with an upturned smile. I think, what an orderly city. He winks, changing shape in my imagination from bike shop guy to upstanding citizen, a man wielding rules.
But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t follow rules. “Nice tattoos,” I comment as I skulk out with my municipal-government sanctioned helmet strapped to my handlebars.
“Don’t forget the helmet!” he adds cheerily.
I learn several facts about the city of Melbourne during my first hours from the vantage of two wheels:
• the government subsidizes bicycle helmets
• subsidized helmets can be bought for five dollars at 7-Eleven
• nobody doesn’t wear a helmet (on a bike)
• bikes, between the white lines in bike lanes, act like cars, whereas in America we act like pedestrians on wheels, aka like adolescents tripping on acid at a rock concert
• this is not New York
• no one plays squirrel with pedestrians
• cyclists wait patiently at traffic lights—between the white lines of the bike lanes, before the white lines of the crosswalks. No one hops to the sidewalk to cut a corner.
Perhaps it’s my being a New Yorker that caused me to notice, first, about Melbourne, its rules.
Caveat: I understand that there’s nothing more irritating than a New Yorker writing in a condescending manner about other, presumably lesser, cities. Please permit me my malingering. By essay’s end, the author is sure to meet her comeuppance.
Confession: In New York, I often ride the wrong way down a separated bike path on First Avenue from my apartment—on East Twelfth Street—to Houston Street—twelve blocks south. Here, the path becomes two-way. I do this in order to avoid going an extra block out of my way to ride down Second and then return all the way back to First, but in fact I’m never alone in this scofflaw activity. There is always a whole pack of us, pushing against traffic.
And yet: every time—every time—someone shouts at me. Of course, they’re right—it’s annoying, but this is New York. I’ve gotten yelled at so often I can tell from a block’s distance who will do it. It’s always a white guy. Always. “Go back to Brooklyn!” I mutter under my breath. “This is Manhattan.” If it happens in Brooklyn, I mutter, “Go back to Minnesota!” I’ve been riding like this since I was a messenger at age fifteen—when the dispatcher instructed me to lie about my age to get the job. “Sweetie, it’s how we do things,” he said. There were many open secrets in our city: underage drinking, smoking pot on the street, hopping the subway turnstiles after the 7pm cutoff for the free schools pass.
I grew up in a New York City of chaos. Isn’t it that innate chaos, at least in part, that makes New York the most artistic city in the world? Just sayin’.
And yet. Melbourne was so pleasant. The slang was so welcoming and cheerful. New York slang, its accent is noxious. Then there’s rhyming Cockney, which is a sort of mean joke on anyone who’s not gritty enough to be Cockney—totally impenetrable. Melbourne slang seemed to be about evoking childhood, eating brekky and playing footie and wearing bluey jackets. A local told me that in general the language followed the rule of shortening—Mels for Melbourne, totes for totally, uni for University. I wondered if in this young nation—founded as a Commonwealth only little over a century ago, in 1901—it was the language of children that was celebrated.
Day Three—in which a New Yorker ponders issues of entitlement
For her opening address at the NonfictioNow Melbourne conference, Cheryl Strayed read her magnificent “Write Like a MotherFucker” Dear Sugar column, which is about entitlement:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
After, I coasted down the pleasant slope along the western edge of the Melbourne Museum grounds down from Gertrude Street (Did people call it “Gertie”? I asked myself). Sunshine angled across the path at its customary 10 degree-angle, casting that alluring, Southern Hemisphere gleam on the tarmac. Humbled by possible repercussions from rule-breaking—fear of fines, arrest, the uncertain rights of a foreigner on alien soil—I’d begun following them.
And I wondered, In New York, why was it always white men who sneered at me when I broke the rules?
Then I understood, in a flash: my rule-breaking on the bicycle annoyed people because it was an entitled behavior. I wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the cops—me: articulate, white, neither an immigrant nor paperless nor poor. What did I have to fear? Entitled rule-breaking annoys people who are following the rules themselves, who must ask, I’m following the rules, why doesn’t she?
I stopped for a light. Stopped—grounded to zero velocity, though there was not a single impediment racing along the cross-street. Not a pedestrian, not a car. I stayed between the lines. And a revelation came to me: my rule breaking rankled white men in particular because of their entitlement. They are working hard to overcome their own sense of privilege in order to not break rules, as I was here in Mels. It’s difficult, when you’re used to walking through the world in a different manner. What a slap in the face, to see someone flaunt a restriction brazenly. Enraging. To follow rules is to eat your entitlement.
In which I ponder, as a writer of nonfiction, how to balance a desire to break rules against the problems of entitlement?
At NonfictioNow, we celebrate the breaking of rules. Nonfiction is a genre that defies categories, embracing its the relative lack of them versus the older modes: fiction with its Freytag’s Pyramid, Poetry with its sestina.
The Australian writers in particular at NonfictioNow seemed adept at locating organic forms for content. Theresa Meads read a lyric essay in which visual content interplayed against repeated fragments of poetic prose. Panel titles referenced “The Margins,” “Picturing the Essay,” “Audio-Visual Experiments,” “Landscapes: Broken, Extreme, Constructed,” “Memory, Image, Trauma,” Nonfiction Poetry,” “Graphic Narratives”, “Fiction in Nonfiction”, “Lies Damn Lies.”
How was it that this celebration of manifold and perhaps not-yet-even-invented iterations of form should take place in a city of rules? The Australians seemed the conference’s more adept rule-breakers. Perhaps I was missing something.
Nonfiction is formless, boundless, a place to invent, explore.
“I no longer believe in great man thinks. I no longer believe in great man sits in a room alone and writes masterpiece.” —David Shields, in a talk on James Agee
“A significant component of the postmodern world is the collapse of perception between what is real and what we perceive to be real.” —Brandon Schrand, in a talk on lyric style
“We know not which to be charmed by, the author or the man” —Patrick Madden in a talk on “the faceblanket,” citing William Hazlitt citing Montaigne
“We don’t have enough crazy books anymore.” —Robin Hemley
“Theme of conference: Nonfiction is a medium that can and should—must, perhaps?—convey our postmodern reality. It must rewrite the contract with the reader. This is why (why?) nonfiction is the genre best poised to grapple with questions of truth, non-truth, irreality.” —me, in my notebook
It was night. I waited for the light at Gertie Street. The Australian author Helen Garner had just given a talk, in which she cheered our American Janet Malcolm for having been vindicated, back in 1994, in the famous libel suit brought against her by Jeffrey Masson. I remembered a headline about the trial from the time, reading, more or less, “Do Speakers Really Say What Is Between Quotation Marks?” Would that they could, I remembered the text, with its throwing-up-of-hands, its shrug. A sea change. “Just How Sacrosanct Are the Words Inside Quotation Marks?”—I remembered another headline. I heard, as, during the conference, David Shields had quoted Robin Hemley quoting Pico Iyer, “The indelible sound of a brain trying to make sense of something.” Perhaps that brain was my own.
The traffic light asserted its boorish red. I pushed the wheel toward the white line, but only the nose of the beast crossed to the liminal other side. I leaned forward. The base of the wheel touched the line, then crossed it. Streetlamps gleamed in the hemispheric mist. There was not a soul. My helmet chafed. I stood on the pedal, pushed. And I flew, headlong, into the unknown.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain, published in 2004 by Little, Brown, and forthcoming in rEprint from Dzanc Books.
July 20, 2012 § 3 Comments
Richard Gilbert presents an exceedingly intelligent and detailed discussion of how reading a particular book closely, in this case Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed Wild, can help writers work through structural problems in their own books-in-progress. Gilbert is always excellent on craft, but may have outdone himself here, in the best way. Here is an excerpt, but take the time to read his entire post over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour:
In June I threw out the first act of my memoir—it was too slow to start—which helped me cut forty pages, and I broke up two chapters on my father and threaded him throughout. That project took the entire month. I felt I was seeing my material with a colder eye, and placing it or cutting it for effect, not using it because I loved it or because I hoped it was working.
At the start of July I printed out hard copy of my manuscript and also began rereading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. My morning practice was first to read some of Wild, my morning book, and then to read and edit my memoir printout. Over the years I’ve picked up the notion of reading and rereading three, and only three, books as models while writing. But I don’t strictly follow that regimen, in part because I’ve worked on my memoir for so long that I’d go insane with just three books; however, I do try to operate in that spirit of that concentrated devotion to a few books that I aspire to emulate. As a memoir, Wild truly cooks, that much was clear from my first reading, and in the way I needed my book to cook.
… As I write this, I’m halfway through the memoir again. But the day I read Chapter Five looms in my mind like a bad day on the PCT, like a landslide. I felt a doom-laden insight creep upon me as I read the chapter, so recently reworked on my computer, a leaden despair and a roaring in my ears. Chapter Five was a mess. The through story had collapsed, and the chapter’s various sections seemed like just a bunch of this ‘n that—useless rubble, even though as individual pieces they read fine. I might have felt the earth fall away on my own, but the contrast between my effort and Wild’snarrative probably was what gobsmacked me.
And yet, despite the fact that seeing such a problem was a gift, I melted down for a day or two. Fear and confusion riddled me. Could I dig out of this one? How?
June 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
Oprah has revived her book club and chosen Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail as her first selection. Let there be cheers.
March 1, 2012 § 25 Comments
By Patrick Ross
“If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.”
Cheryl Strayed doesn’t think much of Joan Didion’s assertion that writing memoir means selling others out. Her contrarian position resonated from the podium at AWP’s session “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction.” The Pushcart Prize-winning Strayed told a packed ballroom of 300 writers that she didn’t aim to embarrass her ex-husband when writing about her failed first marriage. In nonfiction, she said, “I show more about myself.”
There is no way to control the reaction of another to appearing in your prose, however.
“If you were to see yourself through your friend’s eyes, you wouldn’t recognize yourself,” said The Rumpus founding editor Stephen Elliott. Even when a subject grants permission for you to portray them in, print, they may be hostile to the result. “They don’t mean,” Elliott said, “‘You can write about a side of me I don’t know I have.”
Hostility can come from any source. “My father threatened to sue if I ever wrote about my family again,” The Sun associate publisher Krista Bremer said. A few days after the publication of an essay about her parents that revealed no dark secrets—no incest, no abuse, no pathology—Bremer found herself sitting on sizzling asphalt beside her mailbox, digesting the “furious scrawl” of her father’s handwriting.
“’Congratulations,’” Bremer said a writer friend told her. “‘If you pissed your family off that much, you got it right.’” Bremer said her father only disputed one fact—her mother drank tonic water with vodka, not gin—but it was what was unspoken that rocked him. “The spaces between the words,” she said, “had been the most difficult for him to contemplate.”
It’s important to remember, said multiple memoir author Lee Martin, that “you volunteer to be a character in your memoir, but others don’t.” Martin first disguised his memoir writing as fiction, but that didn’t lesson the frustration of family. After writing a short story about an anecdote regarding his father that was shared with him by his aunt, his source of information dried up. Martin had betrayed his parents, the aunt said, informing him that “’I’ll never tell you another story about the family again.’”
Yet all of these writers continue to craft and publish memoir. They seek to examine the human condition by telling the truth about others and themselves, as best as they can recall.
There are other reasons to write memoir, said essayist Poe Ballantine.
Years ago a short piece of fiction Ballantine wrote based on his life paid $300, but a subsequent story paid only $200. The publisher informed him the first essay paid more because they thought it was an essay. “‘Oh, you pay more for essays,’ I replied.”
Ballantine’s essay-writing hasn’t stopped, he said. “I have an inexhaustible catalogue of suffering and failure.”
Patrick Ross is a writer and an instructor with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.