December 7, 2018 § 12 Comments
by Kathy Stevenson
Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”
That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.
Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)
It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.
For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.
Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”
Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.
After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.
Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!
Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”
For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.
And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?
It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.
June 26, 2014 § 1 Comment
Why do some nonfictional stories resist being told? On a table near my writing desk sit twenty-four journals I kept during the years of my love affair with the Irishman. They’re filled with details that evoke the tenderness and difficulty and hilarity of two people from very different backgrounds who fell in love nonetheless. …
I’ve often tried to begin the memoir with one of these moments, but it falls flat. We are too ordinary; I cannot in words convey the charm of his accent and the unfettered pleasure he takes in his senses without turning him into a leprechaun.
Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice? Is the story of two people from different backgrounds falling in love just too played out? Do I simply lack the confidence of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff? Or are some stories meant only to be lived, not told? ..
Is there an algorithm that will predict the moment when a writer can begin productively to translate life experience into nonfiction? Must a certain number of years go by? Or does this impasse mean I’m supposed to give up on my desire to write the nonfiction version and write a novel instead?
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: http://richardgilbert.me/2012/03/18/the-leverage-of-persona-in-memoir/
May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
HTMLGiant, the literary blog with the liveliest comment section around, has a new feature where folks are asked to recommend six books, old or new, and to start the feature off they’ve asked Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore to recommend memoirs. Here’s what he had to offer.
Narrowing my list of representative memoirs down to six was an agonizing task, because there are so many solid examples. To keep the undertaking manageable (barely), I’ve limited myself to the last twenty years or so, and instead of a ‘favorites’ list, I’ve chosen six examples that I think show the range of what memoir can do.
My concise description of memoir is “the truth, artfully arranged.” Now we can argue about the meaning of the word truth for weeks, but I’d rather not. I think – despite all of the weakness of memory (and for that matter, observation) – that sophisticated readers understand that the truth they are given in memoir is the author’s subjective truth. There is no hope of objective accuracy, nor would that be as interesting to read. But you go after your truth, with honest intent. That means that an author who is willingly, consciously subverting what he remembers is not writing memoir, by my definition. Cross that line, and you are writing fiction. Which is fine, but it is another project entirely.
So I’ve pulled these six memoirs down from my shelves to illustrate how a life can be presented artfully. Here they aare:
March 17, 2010 § 3 Comments
The Bellingham Review has extended its contest deadline (for all three contests) to April 1.
Included is the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction (judge: Rebecca McClanahan); the 49th Parallel Poetry Award (judge: Allison Joseph), and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction (judge: Jess Walter).
Here is the link: http://www.wwu.edu/bhreview/contests.shtml