March 27, 2012 § 9 Comments
A guest post/craft essay by Tabitha Blankenbiller
This June marks the end of my graduate work in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. As the culmination of my time as a creative nonfiction student, I am compiling a thesis to convince the school that yeah, I’ve been writin’ some stuff. So, every morning this semester when friends, family and my barista ask why I look like I’m on the wrong side of a bar fight with a raccoon, I explain that, “I’m working on my thesis.” Never, “I’m writing my book.” Saying “my book,” I’ve become convinced, is a curse. As soon as I’ve ever labeled a project book-worthy it falls apart. The iron masterpiece that stood rooted in my mind turns out to be nothing but cotton candy in a rainstorm. Defining my work as a “thesis” protects the sprouts of inspiration and early drafts from falling victim to the trap of explanation. Bringing up a thesis to people sounds academic and dull, so I’m more likely to have people commiserate on their own grad work (an MBA full of theoretical accounting formulas, for instance) than ask, “So what is your book about?”
Perhaps my superstition stems from the fact that I’ve done this before. As an undergraduate English major, I had the option to write a gigantic literary criticism treatise or a creative thesis to fulfill my graduation requirements. As much as spending a semester dissecting Tolstoy and combing through microfilm sounded like a total blast, I opted for the tortured artist route. I’ll write a book! I told everyone within earshot. And if you couldn’t hear me, hell yes you were getting an e-mail.
You may have asked me what my book was about. Or you may have turned slightly and tried to get back to your day. Either way, I’d go on: “It’s called Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl. And it’s all about how everyone tried to destroy me—this school tried to destroy me! But I survived.”
The story covered my first two years at Concordia University, a very small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. The 120 pages were clobbered with every middle class coming-of-age cliché you can name: threesomes, weed, Jägerbombs, bitchy roommates, one-night stands and handcuffs. Even better, the stock stories were conveyed with every hackneyed writing device I could dig out of my scant toolbox: Overwrought dialogue? Everywhere. Run-on Wolfe parody sentences? Well, of course —I mean, my GOD! How could I write about these craa-zy times, man, without going a little Gaga? A chapter named with the complete transcribed lyrics of a Fiona Apple song? Check and mate.
The juvenile writing I can shrug off. I have to give my 22-year-old self a little credit; at least I was writing every single day, during hours scrounged between taking classes and hawking underwear at Frederick’s of Hollywood. The more glaring problem with my undergrad thesis was the immediacy in the writing and in the presentation. I was convinced that I could (and should) write a memoir about events that had just happened in the last tax year. There was no concept of narrative distance and as a result, the stories never elevated beyond how they would be related at happy hour. The guy was an asshole and I was an innocent victim. “How could he do this to me?” I would flare, over the phone to friends and then on the page. I had no breathing room to move past the immediate, to collect these fragments of human experience and turn them around and, as Vivian Gornick demands in The Situation and the Story, reveal “the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” Without that bird’s eye perspective looking at this clueless, lonely girl and wondering why she did the things she did, not what random men were doing, the narrative couldn’t get off the ground. My thesis was a diary, a rehash of a crummy twenty-four months.
My book-or-nothing attitude was the first delusion I had to squash in grad school. As Judy Blunt told me after my first MFA workshop, to which I’d submitted my same amateur schlock, “You need to get over this ‘book’ idea. That’s like trying to build a house without a hammer. You need to learn how to tell a story first.” The distinction is often made by MFA faculty between “thesis” and “manuscript” because, as much as incoming students would like to believe otherwise, the two are not one and the same. Even if you enter a grad program with an elegantly arcing personal narrative (“I was kidnapped by a bank robber who turned out to be my long-lost father”), your style and perspective in writing should evolve in a fashion so drastic that completing a viable manuscript by graduation day is unlikely at best. Like everyone else, I had to drop my delusions of walking out of commencement with a degree in one hand and a polished memoir in the other. What I will leave with in June is far less tangible: the craft tools and personal discipline to refine my thesis’s foundation into a book outside the structure the MFA program provides. Even the diploma won’t be heading home with me; it shows up in the mail a month later.
As I slowed down, took my graduate writing Bird by Bird, I began to grow. I stopped stretching on my tiptoes for a narrative that would fill 265 pages and moved to personal essays. This allowed me to zero in on structure, on picking words with care, to be theatrical in doses and precise in droves. I told stories, moments, snippets well, instead of a long journey poorly. Every once and a while I would get extra excited about a story and think I could blow it up from 15,000 words to 150,000. “A memoir of becoming a woman in the Great Recession!” or, “What it’s like to be an artist in corporate America!” As soon as I said these ideas aloud, whether to a fellow writer or a civilian friend, they would melt. I’m not claiming that these were ideas worth keeping. But now I’ll never know, because whenever I began justifying an emerging notion, it dissolved. “Well, you’ve read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, right? It will be like that, but lighter, like The Devil Wears Prada MEETS The Boys of My Youth written by Cheryl Strayed. Because corporate work environments are really hard…”
During my last Pacific MFA residency in Seaside, Oregon, Debra Gwartney gave a presentation on process and revision. I shuffled into the Best Western conference room thinking I knew the drill by now: Cut! When you’ve cut, cut again! Read your draft out loud. Annihilate adverbs. Instead, Gwartney showed us a picture of a plywood skeleton, precariously held with duct tape and wood glue. “This,” she claimed, “is a whale.” The skeleton was the beginning of a sculpture by a New England artist. The artist’s glimmer—I’m going to sculpt a whale!— was only on the path to realization. “No one can see the future whale but her,” Gwartney said. The sculpture’s beginnings, she explained, were like our earliest drafts: We’ve been inspired, we can feel and envision a final product, but all that is concrete in the world is a giant pile of wood scraps and adhesive. A long road of shaping, additions, polishes and shavings remains before anyone else can see what we’re working toward. “Which is why I would warn you against sharing your work too early,” she said.
I had never considered that pushing my writing out for opinions might quell it. I get excited about a project, and I blanket my reader circle with drafts as soon as the words hit the page. Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl had probably been read five times by all of my friends before Concordia accepted it for graduation credit. What Gwartney said made the correlation between sharing and squashing click: I needed to trust myself to write, ponder and rewrite before sharing my work and taking on all the doubt that keeps the universe humming.
Imagination is precious and ideas are fleeting. Even if it seems obsessive or superstitious or pathological to squirrel my work away, I’m finding the peace to draft more than worth the antisocial tendencies not sharing my early work produces. Premature advice can send me off the rails. I am still fleshing out, so hearing an early voice chime in with “are you sure your mother’s opinion is necessary in this scene?” can set off a whole mess of destructive second-guessing. The whale, whether flash or essay or thesis or book, lives inside of me, and can’t breathe out in the world unborn. Forcing myself to turn my project into a marketing elevator pitch is the equivalent of infanticide.
So whatever is taking shape in my Word files, I love it enough to hold out. And perhaps that is the greatest thesis lesson of all: learning when to keep my mouth shut.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a student in Pacific University’s MFA program and will graduate in June 2012 with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Sliver of Stone and Owl Eye Review. She is an associate editor of Silk Road Review and teaches memoir workshops in Portland, Ore.
March 5, 2012 § 9 Comments
F143. The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction / Friday, March 2 10:30-11:45am
Many a memoirist has asked the following questions as they look at their manuscript:
Why this story?
Which version of you gets to tell the story?
These, panel F143’s description says, are the “sweet spots” of a memoir. It’s where we root our narrator, after we peg down situation and story, as Vivian Gornick calls it.
It is also what I have been struggling with my own work. Really struggling. I brought a big-ass coffee and my notebook. I wanted some answers. I got that and a whole lot more.
When I arrive at Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom at 10:20am, I spot Stephen Elliott chatting to an attendee from his previous panel (F119. Literature and the Internet in 2012). A couple of minutes later, our panelists—Jill Christman, Debra Gwartney, Sonya Huber, Dan Raeburn, Bonnie J. Rough—step up from behind the riser where they were huddled up. It’s cold up here, Christman mentions, standing at the mic. The idea for their panel springs from Christman’s efforts to find an organizing principal for her memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, as a graduate student.
Her teacher, Christman recalls, raised a straightforward, paradigm-shifting question, written in the margins: “Before the manuscript, there is silence. Why break the silence? Why here? Why now?”
“I had to pull my car over after I read it,” she says. This eureka moment was when Christman realized she needed to root the place where her narrator stands. She found her “pivot point” that gave readers a place to invest themselves, “to show what is at stake” in her work.
I talk about this with students all the time. I also tell them how hard it is to do it. I tell them about Virginia Woolf’s idea of the I-then and the I-now, about “moments of being,” Philip Lopate’s notion of reflection and introspection and the “retrospective voice.” We write in different tenses in our drafts to make this stand out—the present tense for the I-now and past for the remembered self, the I-then.
But what’s tricky, what I have the hardest time figuring out in my own work, is also the question Christman had struggled with. Where do you root the tale’s teller? Which version of yourself tells the story? Where do we say, this is the point where I have enough wisdom accumulated or lessons learned to pivot and tell the tale. Or, as John Locke asks in Lost, “When are we?”
We writers “machete a route” through our stories, the long slog of “and then and then and then,” Christman says, all the while trying not to telegraph the ending. That’s when the next stage of work begins.
In my notes, I’ve got a long line drawn across the page of my notebook. Then: “convince the reader is engaged in an urgent journey of discovery.”
Collections of essays are often grafted into a memoir, Christman says, a tack that often seems obvious or forced. It can’t work without a rooted narrator to do the heavy lifting. She talks about the use of the framing prologue in a collection of essays—the first sentence from Didion’s “The White Album,” for example.
“Life is big, paper is small,” Chrisman concludes. “Why [makes fill-in-blank line gesture]?”
Sonya Huber is next. I have known Huber for a couple of years now, ever since I published a sestina of hers on the McSweeney’s website that is adapted from a letter to the skateboarding magazine Thrasher. I finally met her in person at AWP in 2006 and she’s been an inspiration since, both as a writer and teacher.
Huber begins her talk by name-checking Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century as a must-read for its points about this “imagined site of the essay.” (I see Stuckey-French later on a lyric essay panel where he read his “Dear John [D’Agata]” letter.)
Huber mentions how her work often centers around “a mess the narrator is going through,” often inside “moments of domestic instability,” of “being alone in public places.” This is certainly the case with her Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, published in 2010, which starts with instability—i.e., having “shitty insurance”—and introduces possible rooting points along the way, with “body and mind in conflict.” Huber invokes Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in particular how the book opens—not with a photo album of glamorous Hollywood memories, as one might expect, but the opening of Word document.
Starting with such everyday, domestic details, she says, is so effective in introducing memoir’s “world-split” events, the instigating incidents of memoir.
There is a mention of the importance of providing a “class-based context,” which piques my interest. My memoir’s coming-of-age tale begins in my blue-collar/working class family and it’s been tricky figuring out out how to depict the struggles I’d had dealing with leaving that world behind.
Huber is quick to point out, however, that domestic instability doesn’t mean a hermetic quandary. “A rooting moment can’t be an intellectual decision,” she says. It’s a “spiritual” moment, one that involves memory, body and spirit.
Also in my notes:
“Push against our own assumptions of what is a meaningful moment,” “not epiphanic” necessarily, but “prosaic,” with “waves of struggle and desire.”
Reading itself is “no longer a rooted experience.”
Rooting the narrator often “launches the essaying moment in memoir.”
Daniel Raeburn is next. He’s the author of a monograph on graphic novelist Chris Ware and essays in The Baffler and The New Yorker. These credits prompt a “wow” from a lady behind me when they are read aloud.
Raeburn describes himself as the contrarian of the group, and talks about the “danger” of rooting the narrator in the present tense, which is by now an expected device, often cliché. We all know how these stories begin, he says. “We begin at the end, sitting at my desk, looking at a photograph of my mother.”
Nervous giggles all around. He’s right.
He’s not going for the cheap shots, however. “This is the way many memoirs do begin, to answer this question of this moment of activation,” Raeburn says, and proposes that this might be a “misguided way of actually beginning a memoir.” While good for the writer who is eager to get started, it’s not necessarily good for the reader. The device “seems too self-conscious, even for memoir.” It recalls for him the meta-fiction of the 1970s, self-conscious and self-referential.
“The story is the distance, not the conflating of them.” Making both “I”s seem the same or blent together reminds me of James Wood’s idea of “free indirect style” in How Fiction Works, where a single adjective might indicate an “I” Narrator’s hindsight.
In the margin, I draw a box around a probably awful idea:
“IDEA: I-now in past tense and I-then in present tense?”
Writing in the present tense might “mimic film,” Raeburn says, “and that’s cool. But it’s essentially an adolescent state of being.” I write in margin: “Snap!”
From my notes:
“Are we be in the age of the meta-memoir, where the writing of the memoir drives the rooted self?”
The “Siamese twins of memory and imagination.”
The rooted self as a “booster rocket,” useful for getting one’s memoir-speaker into orbit, must also be jettisoned to make the story work.
Examples of cutting out rooting scenes, of the remembered self.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.
The “I” Character, the subject, “relatively ignorant,” the former self who can’t understand everything, who makes unwise decisions.
The “I” Narrator, the older-wiser remembering self, who has the benefit of hindsight, the real story.
Bonnie J. Rough is next. She’s the author of Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, which features not one, not two, but three narrators woven and collaged together.
Rough talks about the earlier drafts, often standalone essays, where the narrator appears only as “pearl of wisdom-dropper.” I giggle like a schoolgirl. I’m so freaking sleep-deprived.
A part of Rough’s memoir appeared as a New York Times’ Modern Love column, which addresses what she and her spouse might do if she is found to be a carrier of a genetic disease, ectodermal dysplasia, that claimed the life of her father at 49 years old, when she was only a young child.
I adapt a remark of hers as a question to myself about my own draft: “Isn’t it true that my dad’s story represents my worst fear for my own life, as well as a source of pride and distinction?”
Last up is Debra Gwartney, author of Life Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Gwartney talks about how she went “back to classic memoirs” to look for remembering, rooted selves among “calcified memories.”
An example is Frank Conroy’s classic Stop Time, specifically its second chapter, “Savages,” which describes both a former self and a current self-in-crisis.
“It’s no longer about how these bad people did bad things to good me,” Gwartney says. She proposes that every current memoir might have the same subtitle: “How I Coped.” Big laughs.
In my notes:
The rooted narrator is “not finished with the past and the past is not finished with me/him/her.”
The “filter of adult self all the way through, often in the prologue.”
Gwartney discusses two prologues that “establish the problem, the state of mind and tone of introspection” in memoir: Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. In these two prologues we “witness the unfolding of events from an inside perspective.”
By the time the panel was over before noon, I had filled up 20 pages in my off-brand Moleskin. I walked up to the podium like an eager fanboy to say how much I loved what they all had to say. I tell Sonya Huber they should compile their written remarks in PDF. Here’s hoping they do.
Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate. He helps run the group blog We Who Are About To Die and teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @danielnester.