A Life In Progress: Writing My Last Eight-Thousand Days
October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:
DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?
LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.
The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.
As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.
One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.
DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again?
LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.
DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?
LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.
More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.
AWP 2014: The Ethics of Immersion
March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
A guest post from Ann Beman. (For those of you wondering, we still have about ten more panel reports in our queue, and will continue rolling them out into next week):
Select seat with view of lectern. Check.
Push Voice Memo button on phone. Check.
Scribble panel title in notebook. Check.
I’m ready. So are the five panelists facing me, and so are the 60+ audience members surrounding me. We are the researchers in Room 607.
“It’s a bit of an oddball role,” began moderator Ana Maria Spagna. She described the ethical challenges experienced while researching Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, in which she explored her late father’s involvement in the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1957. The various people to whom she spoke had different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story, “as well as their own real lives and real pain,” she said. The crux became how to respect those peoples’ privacy, integrity, and culture: “How could I honor their stories and still tell some version of the truth? How could I characterise my relationship with them, because on one hand, these were friends of my late father, and on the other hand, they were subjects of a potential book?”
Many different writers have faced these challenges, said Spagna. “And they’ve approached them — necessarily — differently, both in terms of craft and in terms of ethics.”
Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, describing how he framed his intentions with his insular Amish neighbors — “I told Samuel I just wanted to write the truth as I saw it.” Invoking Gay Talese’s “fine art of hanging out,” Mackall told his Amish neighbors, “I’m going to hang around so much that I’m not going to leave on my own accord. So you need to tell me, ‘enough.’ They never did. I was exhausted.”
Amanda Webster, discussing her work in progress, a book about growing up in a gold-mining town in West Australia, attending school with members of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their families by the Australian government — “In Australia, a white person writing about personal Aboriginal stories is typically taboo. Story ownership was a real issue for me.”
What Webster learned:
- Establish your authority to tell the story, and once established be aware that it’s not unassailable authority.
- Establish your stake.
- Be aware that your role is not to provoke further trauma.
- Be mindful of Aboriginal customs.
- Not to plunder these peoples’ lives and then disappear without a trace.
Webster also explained her rationale for and methodology in paying some of her research subjects — “Ultimately, it came back to the refrain we always hear: as writers we should be paid for our work. Shouldn’t these story subjects be paid for their work as well?”
Both Mackall and Bob Cowser Jr. (Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team) expressed their reticence to change names during the writing process. They acknowledged it was necessary but preferred to completely finish their manuscripts before doing so. “It breaks the spell for me,” said Cowser, “I don’t know who to care about, or where the ground is under me.”
Jo Scott-Coe, author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School, describing her efforts — “I took a great deal of time to shade identities, particularly with the darker material, of which there is quite a bit,” she said, adding that she avoided names by identifying teaching staff by role, and family members by relation. Despite the camouflage, there were readers who recognized themselves.
What she learned:
- The ethics of where or how to camouflage names
- When people react negatively or angrily, it’s not always to debate. Often it is because you have expressed a connection or perception that they disagree with, or that they find offensive, or that they didn’t expect to be expressed by you.
- Essayists cannot always anticipate these reactions, and they’re not always ours to control or evade.
- We are not always in the service of a predetermined message. We don’t know what we will discover.
All of the panelists agreed that the most important “contract” they had with their research subjects was to let them read and vet what they had written.
“Ultimately,” said Scott-Coe, “our byline is our accountability.”
Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.
Immersion Contest Winners
June 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
Houston, we have lift-off, and landing, and three winners for our immersion nonfiction contest celebrating Robin Hemley’s new craft guide, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.
We were unsure how many would participate — immersion in 500 words sounds like a contradiction if not an impossibility — but we were wrong, as usual, and received 50 splendid entries, all of them surprising and unique.
Immersion, by the way, is defined as involvement in something that completely occupies all the time, energy, or concentration available. Types of immersion writing within these broad categories include: the Reenactment, the Experiment, the Quest, the Investigation, and the Infiltration.
Now Robin has judged, and we have our three winners. We will debut their winning entries right here on the blog over the coming week. Stay tuned!
Immerse Yourself, Briefly: A Contest
April 9, 2012 § 20 Comments
To celebrate Robin Hemley’s new book, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel, we are launching a quick contest. You have one month, until May 11th, to immerse yourself, in something. If it is water, be sure that you can swim. If it is honey, watch out for bears.
Here are the details:
For centuries writers have used participatory experience as a lens through which to better see the world at large and as a means of exploring the self. Immersion writing encompasses Immersion Memoir (in which the writer uses participatory experience to write about the Self), Immersion Journalism (in which the writer uses the Self to write about the world), and Travel Writing (a bit of both: the writer in the world and the world in the writer). Types of immersion writing within these broad categories include: the Reenactment, the Experiment, the Quest, the Investigation, and the Infiltration.
Immersion, by the way, is defined as involvement in something that completely occupies all the time, energy, or concentration available.
So, choose one of the immersion modes and knock yourself out, except we are only allowing you 500 words.
Yes, you heard us right: 500 words, or fewer.
Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa, and celebrated author, will be the judge. First prize is a copy of A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel and $50, second prize is a signed copy of the immersive The Accidental Buddhist, and third prize is a showercap. All three winners will be published on the Brevity blog.
Deadline May 11th, 2012. Mail your entries to brevitymag(at)gmail.com with Immersion as the first word in your subject heading.
Lee Gutkind on Immersion
November 18, 2008 § 2 Comments
My friend* Eric Parker interviews my friend* Lee Gutkind over at the website Fresno Famous.
As well as founding and editing the magazine Creative Nonfiction, Lee is a major practitioner and proponent of the branch of creative nonfiction called “immersion journalism,” with roots in Capote and links to Kidder and McPhee and Susan Orlean. Lee knows more about “immersion” perhaps than anyone else teaching right now, and has some excellent guidance and observation in the full interview.
A quote: “… that’s why immersions are so wonderful in that you walk into an immersion having an idea, idea A, but by the time you’ve spent three months or six months, you have a new idea, or a different formulation of your idea. Then, if you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more. So, it’s a constant balancing challenge to make sure that you are giving the subject the proper attention.”
*(As a side note, it is continually fascinating how small the literary world seems when you’ve been knocking around in it for twenty years or so. I met Lee many years ago as a student in Pittsburgh; and came to know Eric just this past summer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The six degrees of separation game in the writing world sometimes seems too easy — it should be one or two degrees of separation.)