Seeing an Essay and My Father Anew

April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Victor Domino1x

Gilbert’s father bought a great-great-great grandson of this legendary bull, shown in 1935

By Richard Gilbert

Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?

Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.

Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.

After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.

Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.

And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.

I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.

Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.

All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”


Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.


AWP 2012 — The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction

March 5, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Daniel Nester

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 here?

Why now?

Why you?

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.

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Friday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you’ve been following along, you  know that by now we’ve all fainted in the lobby:

Friday Noon to 1:15 pm

Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F148. Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared. (David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, Christopher Joyce) Many nonfiction writers either don’t understand or are afraid of the challenges of writing about science, medicine, technology, or other complicated subjects. But this panel of experienced writers argues that the best science writing can be as ambitious as the best literary writing on any subject. Good science writing, in fact, may be more challenging, because it requires a journalist’s regard for accuracy plus the ability to explain complex subjects with grace, passion, and literary skill.

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F160. Memoir, Spirituality and the Self in the Narcissistic Culture of Our Time. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Rodger Kamenetz, Farideh Goldin, Julia Spicher Kasdorf) If one believes the detractors, memoir bears responsibility second only to reality TV for fomenting this “narcissistic” age, in Christopher Lasch’s term—an era of therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as “authenticity” and “awareness.” Here, we consider quests for self-knowledge as linked, rather, to a spiritual project. How can memoir point to places beyond the self—to transcendence, insight or affiliation with human community?

Friday, 1:30 to 2:45 pm

Ambassador Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F179. Stranger Than Fiction: The Choice Between Fiction and Nonfiction. (Robin Romm, Kerry Cohen, Pam Houston, Cheryl Strayed, Richard McCann) Most every writer has a personal story to tell. But with memoir comes potential harm—for friends, family, and themselves. Writers often wonder if they could simply change their stories to fiction. How do authors choose between fiction and nonfiction when telling their stories? Can the same story be both fiction and memoir? Five authors who have made such choices will discuss the reasons behind their decisions, and the ramifications of having done so.

Friday, 3 to 4:15 pm

Thurgood Marshall North Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F195. Flinging the Ink Pot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir. (Jill Christman, Kate Hopper, Paul Lisicky, Joe Mackall, Sue William Silverman) This panel of memoirists will consider what happens when we write about subjects that are commonly lumped together and dismissed by the publishing industry. It seems we shouldn’t talk about abuse, addiction, or parenting of any stripe. Why are certain subjects seen as played out, clichéd, and sensational? We will consider whether we can avoid categorizing giant facets of human experience as literary no-nos, and find our way back to the serious writing of the stories we need to tell.

Friday, 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Harding Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F210. What the Narrator Doesn’t Know: The Importance of Speculation in Narrative. (Jill McCabe Johnson, David Huddle, Dinah Lenney, Lee Martin, Lia Purpura) Should narrators admit what they don’t know? Does ignorance discredit the nonfiction author? Listen to four writers discuss how they use speculation to openly investigate questions, uncover the narrator’s vulnerabilities, delve more deeply into narrative, and intensify plot. Learn how not knowing can build credibility and open possibilities for the author, while inviting the reader to embark with you on a journey of exploration.

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F223. Interviewing In My Underwear: Adventures as a Female Memoirist. (Wendy Sumner-Winter, Barrie Jean Borich, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Kerry Cohen, Brenda Miller) We’ve all heard that confession is good for the soul, but how about for a woman living in the real world? Six memoirists discuss the familial, professional, social costs and benefits—and everything in between—of being a woman who writes candidly about her body, her physical life, her sex life, her carnal appetites. We will talk about what it is like to navigate our various social and political worlds having told, literally, the naked truth.

Issue 26: Hot and Cold, Getcha Ready On

January 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

We are about a week away from launching our 26th Issue, themed Hot and Cold. Stay tuned for brief essays from A. Papatya Bucak, Aaron Teel, Marcia Aldrich, Mary Sojourner, Ashley Seitz Kramer, Patricia Twomey Ryan, Jill Christman, and Anne Panning, as well as a new craft essay from Philip Gerard and Bill Milligan’s review of Robert Root’s new book.  We are pleased.

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