Thomas Larson’s Heart and Soul

January 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

A Guest Book Review From Richard Gilbert

As long as humans feel threatened and helpless, they will seek the sanctuary that illness provides.”—Dr. Robert R. Rynearson

larsonOne evening, as he teaches his Monday night memoir class in San Diego, Thomas Larson, age 56, feels his throat burn with acid. He’s sweaty, breathless, confused. In rising panic he flees to a bathroom, then dismisses his students and races to an emergency room. Prepping him for the angioplasty and stenting that will open two blocked arteries and save his life, a nurse peels off his clothes: “They’ve been stuck on me like a soiled diaper for half-an-hour. My body is leaking its insides. It’s not the soul coming out, wet and furious. It’s my skin, like packaging, trying to strip itself of the invader.”

Larson, author of The Memoir and The Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” depicted this March 2006 attack in a Brevity essay, “One Way It Happens.” His new book, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman, January 15, 2014), relates his experience of three heart attacks and their aftermath. Though it spans six years, the book is stunningly concise, 128 pages.

Half a million Americans die from heart disease a year, one-third under age 65, Larson tells us, four in five felled without any foreshadowing pain, dead as quick as 51-year-old James Gandolfini on the bathroom floor of his hotel, and “swoosh—it’s time to update the Wikipedia page.” Dire statistics are one thing, but living through Larson’s ordeal is jolting. Here he riffs, having arrived for his first post-infarct stress test:

Right off, the waiting room strikes me—purgatory’s nursery. On the tight-weave chairs a dozen of us heart patients sit, mid-afternoon. . . . In the ward from which the attendant will come, I imagine the smell of catheters, tubes stuck in flesh, the caustic stink of a draining infection under the scrub-brush sparkle of this cardiology wing, computers on wheeled platforms, the weight scales, the boxes of purple gloves, the plastic holders where my file goes on the outside of the door so Dr. J can, in seconds, scan the chart of whichever room, like rowed animal cages in a zoo, he enters.

Larson’s season in hell has just begun. Genetics partly explains it, his father dead at age 61 from a massive infarction; his older brother, morbidly obese, dead of the same at 42. Larson had been a vegetarian for 25 years, so was trying. But he was middle-aged busy and had become obese himself on a diet rich in cheese and eggs. And even his veggie dishes contained artery-clogging oils.

The Sanctuary of Illness is structured in four equal parts, as balanced and sturdy as our own four-chambered hearts. Within Larson’s dramatic foreground narrative, jump-cutting forward or patiently retracing, he grapples with himself, heart and soul. Amidst his despair over his damaged pump, he confronts baggage: his upbringing, his first, unhappy marriage, the weight of his illness on his relationship with his partner, Suzanna. Slowly he takes control of his health; slowly he sees that his heart crisis happened not just to him but to Suzanna as well. He admits herfear, sees her being forced into a caretaker’s role, imagines her likely early widowhood. He recalls his depressed mother, marooned by male cardiac failure.

In compassion and in love for Suzanna, Larson grows, with great effort, beyond his genetics and history. Beyond the refuge of machismo that tells him to suck it up and die—alone. “The sharing,” he writes, “of what is ultimately not mine but ours creates the sanctuary.” In a book rich in metaphors, this redemptive repurposing of another’s bleak metaphor delights.

Living on the brink of death for six years informs and provokes Larson’s writing; as his journaling grows into the memoir you’re holding in your hands, you glimpse a heartening synergy. “No wonder I love the form,” he writes. “It has my back. The story, ever unfinished, will take me where I would not have gone without it.” Indeed, The Sanctuary of Illness—a model of the memoirist’s art—also feels like an instrument of personal discovery and healing. And it meets the test Larson posits in The Memoir and The Memoirist: self-disclosure rather than event sequence is memoir’s reason for being. Intimate, searching, vivid, Larson’s story is also a cautionary tale that if heeded might prolong your life.


Richard Gilbert’s interview with Thomas Larson about writing memoir, heart disease, and a healthy diet appears on Gilbert’s Draft No. 4 blog. The author of Shepherd: A Memoir (Michigan State, May 1, 2014), Gilbert’s essays have appeared in many journals, including “Kathy” in Brevity.

Wild about Wild and Close Reading

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?

Persona and the Memoir

March 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

Few observers of contemporary creative nonfiction offer up such excellent close reading and intelligent consideration of nonfiction craft as Richard Gilbert does regularly on his blog Narrative.  This week, Gilbert (pictured here) reconsiders three memoirs of childhood, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Harry Crews’s A Childhood, and Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood.

“As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father,” Gilbert notes. “Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.”

“He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.”

Gilbert argues that for the “impossible” subject of Dillard’s memoir—the nature and growth of consciousness—she needed a distanced, adult persona and that a similar persona enriched Crews’s’ memoir. Gilbert contrasts this with the childhood perspective in The Glass Castle.

Here’s a brief excerpt of Gilbert’s post:

Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.

I think Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong event-driven narrative and its lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.

The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is  ‘the instrument of illumination.’

To read the entire post:

The Blueberry Book

May 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

Richard Gilbert reviewed Jim Minicks’s The  Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family in the new Brevity issue released last week, and this week Gilbert, on his Narrative blog, interviews Minick about the writing of the book.

Gilbert, a “fellow ex-farmer,” questions Minick about the difficulties of small scale farming and also about the task of writing a book, finding a narrative arc, characterizing one’s self and others, and “villians” as characters.  Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to the interview and to the Brevity review.

RG: The structure of the book is interesting. Your story opens with the arrival of your 1,000 potted blueberry bushes, then you go back to show the hard work that had to happen— of clearing an overgrown field—before the overwhelming job of planting them. In a note you also acknowledge that you compressed about a dozen years into a round decade for the purposes of storytelling. Could you discuss the reasons for such major structural decisions?

JM: It took me several years of trying to write The Blueberry Years before I found the “leading edge”…that place where I wanted the reader to experience the whole story with Sarah and me as we chased this blueberry dream. That edge, I finally realized, was when the blueberry bushes arrived on April 1, 1995—a fitting day. So, I started there, then had a whole big chunk of the story that happened before this moment still to tell. I kept that part in past tense, and the rest in present, but then I still had the problem of too much time. How do you make a story that covers over a dozen years readable? For me, it was to compress these years, combine them into just a few, but to also be honest with the reader about this compression up front.

RG: I was struck by how scenic your memoir is. You employ expository sidebars about blueberry history and culture, but the book’s heart is watching you and Sarah in action—clearing, planting, mulching, managing pickers. You’re a poet, and your love of language shows, as in your evocative prologue on the blueberry pickers. But was your dramatic, cinematic writing here natural, or a skill you had to learn or develop for this book?

JM: One of the hardest, most important skills I learned in writing The Blueberry Years was how to make the whole of it have a strong dramatic arc. I had written three other books, one a collection of essays, and two poetry, but none of these three required me to figure out how to tell a story over a 300-400 page span. All writers are gods playing with time on many levels. As a poet, I learned to play with time (and image/metaphor) on the micro-level—with each word and sentence. And now, with this memoir (and a novel I’m currently working on), I’ve learned (and am learning) how to play with time on the macro-level…how to weave all the many scenes into a coherent, richly layered, whole.

Honesty in Memoir, Ver. 3.0

April 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our friend Richard Gilbert has advanced the Shields/Reality Hunger argument on his blog, with some deeper thought and analysis.  Gilbert, initially resistant, has come to agree with many of Shields’  ideas.

Well worth the read:

As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.

But as concerns Shields’ thoughts on shaping memory, Gilber writes:

Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him…  hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.

Visit Gilbert’s Blog here.

On “Kathy” and Brevity

May 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

300_129513Richard Gilbert gives us some thoughts on his Brevity 30 essay Kathy and on the narrative choices forced by the short form:

“Kathy” begins and ends with some moments in the first meeting between my father and my future wife. How to convey enough backstory in 750 words for readers to understand their significance? In the body of the essay I showed more of Kathy’s background than my father’s, since readers must know her better to appreciate those moments. I’d decided to focus on Kathy because I knew I wanted to write toward the inscrutable image of her that closes the story.

The events and flashbacks in “Kathy” may pack more wallop than they do in my memoir’s forty pages that cover the same material. For one thing, the opening and closing scenes—my father showing her his high school yearbooks and his meeting us at the airport—appear in different chapters. I used those two related events to frame the essay, one as a hook and one as the climax. The opening depicts my father doing something uncharacteristic, seeking my girlfriend’s approval. The ending flashes back to when he spotted Kathy at the Orlando airport and what he noticed that made him conclude she was like him. I might quibble with the label my father attached to himself and Kathy, but it would take many pages to show why and to probe all subtext in their encounter. The Brevity vignette shows Kathy’s and Dad’s essential natures emerge, catches his point of view, and preserves some of their encounter’s mystery.

The old lesson “Kathy” underscored is that we can’t stop thinking about the stories most worth telling because we can’t fully understand them. They resist reduction. Such stories surely intrigue readers and stir their imaginations, reminiscent of their own enigmatic memories.

I tend to explain things to death, and “Kathy” liberated me. It thrilled me how closely to its resonant core I could pare the narrative.

Conference! Conversation!

March 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just in case you faithful readers are also elitists (that is, you don’t also read New Pages and Narrative), here are some things to be aware of.

The 3rd Annual Conversation and Connections Conference will be held in Washington DC on April 11. In addition to the normal gamut of panels and break-out sessions on writing and publishing, participants get to do what’s called “Speed Dating with Editors.” You can get the full details here. Sounds like fun.1

Conference Banner

Also, there was an article recently in Poets & Writers by Michael McGregor that featured Brevity‘s own DintyW. Moore and raised some questions about truth in nonfiction and a supposed invasion of journalists to the genre. So far, Dinty has remained silent, but Richard Gilbert discusses the article on his blog, Narrative.

Will we ever know Dinty’s side?

1 They seem to have hidden a few typos on the webpage in an effort to help you know which side of the speed dating table you should sit on—if you don’t notice the typos, you should pay for registration; if you do, they should pay you.

– David Grover

David Foster Wallace: Nonfiction’s Special Contract

February 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Our friend Richard Gilbert notes on his blog Narrative some wonderful recently published comments from the late David Foster Wallace about the difference between (and the importance of the difference between) fiction and nonfiction.

Here is one of those comments:

“[W]e all know . . . any embellishment is dangerous, that a writer’s justifying embellishment via claiming that it actually enhances the overall ‘truth’ is exceedingly dangerous, since the claim is structurally identical to all Ends Justify the Means rationalizations. Some part of nonfiction’s special contract with the reader specifically concerns means, not just ends, and also concerns the writer’s motives . . . and maybe the ultimate honesty that good nonfiction entails, and promises, is the writer’s honesty with herself.”

BREV29: A Warm Winter Stew

January 22, 2009 § 2 Comments

BREVITY, the journal of concise nonfiction, launches the 29th issue today, bringing you the Big Bad Wolf, a glass eyeball, Parisian lingerie, a pair of stolen sneakers, an orphaned doe, and, possibly, a visitor from another planet. Maybe it’s just the snow playing tricks on our eyes, but each of these pieces seems to ask the same thing: “Did I see what I think I saw?” Bundle up and get warm by the intense fire of such talents as Lance Larsen, David Bradley, Tim Elhajj, John Bresland, Diane Seuss, Joe Bonomo, Kyle Minor, Laura Sewell Matter, Elizabeth Westmark, and Bryan Fry. Also, new Craft Essays from Brenda Miller and Lisa Knopp, and Book Reviews from Mary Richert, Richard Gilbert, and Stephanie Susnjara.

Read Brevity 29

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