August 27, 2019 § 6 Comments
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts. Part One, “Structure is Everything,” ran yesterday, and can be found here.
Part 2: Finding the Persona of the Narrator and Other Craft Elements in Creative Nonfiction
JONES: Let’s talk about craft elements that you discuss in The Situation and The Story. You described how, when you were writing Fierce Attachments, you came to the realization that the voice you habitually lived in wouldn’t do. Can you talk a little bit about the process of discovering what you call “the other in oneself who can complicate the subject and avoid writing the story with cardboard characters”?
GORNICK: Well that has to do with a lot of soul searching. When I say the ‘other in oneself,’ I mean really digging hard to see how you contributed to the situation. Because otherwise there’s no drama. I wrote an essay on letter-writing, which is in Approaching Eye Level, many years ago. And the way it started was I read a piece in the New York Review of Books by one Englishman reviewing a book by another Englishman in which they were both bemoaning the loss of letter-writing, saying we all grew up with letter writing and no one writes letters any more. I thought about how I really grew up in a letter-writing world, in a working class tenement in the Bronx. My mother wrote letters, the next-door neighbor wrote letters, the doctor wrote letters, everybody wrote letters. So this review was bemoaning the loss of letter writing and I was reading the review, right here in my apartment, with a friend, and I was bemoaning the fact that I live in world where there’s no letter writing anymore. And this man, my friend, got irritated with my bitching and he said, ‘Oh, fuck that, why don’t you write letters? Don’t give me the world, the world, is doing this to you and that to you.’ That’s what it sounded like, the world is doing this to me. ‘Oh, I feel so terrible, the world seemed so much richer when we were all writing letters, now nobody does.’ And as soon as he said that, I had my essay.
Now that was a personal essay. So, I sit down to write this essay, and I’m aware of the fact that I’m going to use this particular narrator to show how this world has changed, using myself first and foremost. Once I decide to do that, then I start to inspect all the times, in another time when I would have written a letter, but this time instead I picked up the telephone. This is on the cusp of email, we don’t even talk any more (laughs).
JONES: True (laughs). We don’t even email. It’s text.
GORNICK: Oh, I don’t go that far. I only do email. So, back to this essay, I had in my mind the controlling outlook of always knowing I was going to be reaching for the moment when I was going to inspect my own feelings, which is, of course, how it all changes, to see how I had internalized picking up the phone instead of writing a letter. And that was the person, the narrator, who was going to write that story. And it was a great pleasure to hit with such particularity on that position and that condition. And that’s the personal essay. I don’t know….what was my point? (laughs)
JONES: I’d asked you to describe the process of discovering the other self.
GORNICK: Well, that’s what I mean..
JONES: The investigation..being a little hard on oneself, so to speak.
GORNICK: Yes, yes.
JONES: Not letting oneself off the hook.
GORNICK: That’s right, exactly.
JONES: Instead of creating this ‘woe is me self’—the victim.
GORNICK: Right, precisely.
JONES: The monster has to have humanity or it’s not interesting.
GORNICK: Absolutely. But the reason that writing political social polemic lost its charm for me, which it had when I was a young woman writing for The Village Voice, was I really got tired, even though I feel the weight of the terrible world we live in, I got tired of writing from that perspective, of accusing the world of not being what I wanted it to be.
JONES: Like a harangue.
GORNICK: Yeah, it’s a rant, no matter how good it is. In the end, it’s a bewailing…I mean political journalists should do it; that’s their job. But not a writer, not a writer who is in the business of fashioning out of the expressiveness of language, and the power of structure, something else.
JONES: I also think there’s no place for the reader in that kind of writing.
GORNICK: No. That’s right. The reader’s not invited. The reader is the passive receiver. Just sit there and shut up.
JONES: And literary writing not only engages the imagination, but gives you space to think.
GORNICK: Absolutely. I certainly hope I’m letting the reader in.
JONES: Do you have any other recommendations for strategies to find the voice for a personal essay writer or memoir writer? For instance, how do you approach the rewriting?
GORNICK: For myself?
JONES: Yes, and as advice for others. Stuff that comes out in first draft doesn’t usually work very well.
GORNICK: No. Well, what can I tell you. In my case, it’s all intuition. You read what you write and then you see, am I losing the subject? Have I got the subject? I can’t really tell you how; my gut tells me.
JONES: Sometimes, does reading something else give you ideas?
GORNICK: Well, everything, conversation. You’re stuck at something, you go away, you live your life for that day, you take a walk, you have a coffee, meet a friend, read a book, or a newspaper, or something, and somewhere this writing is on your mind, and something clarifies. There are no prescriptions for it.
JONES: You talk about tone of sentence and syntax in The Situation and The Story, and give a lot of examples. About the very different kind of writing that comes out of Seymour Krim, for instance—and he reappears in the Odd Woman and the City—versus, say, The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff.
GORNICK: Well, Krim was a very self-conscious Beat writer. The Beats were all tone.
JONES: Any examples of books you’ve read lately, beside those you mention in S&S that display innovative syntax, that particularly fits the story well?
GORNICK: I never can think when that question is asked. I need to see a list. Actually, I was just recently reading the work of an American writer, a man whom I just met recently, but who’s been around forever, in fact, he’s my age, Jerome Charyn. He writes in a very jazzy personal way and the way he’s writing is very much what he’s writing about. People are doing all kinds of interesting things.
In the end, it all depends on how smart you are and how much you know to make the book interesting. If you isolate a story, and do it well, it’s not that hard. I mean it’s hard to write it, it’s not that hard to have the idea. But there are no prescriptions for it.
Read Part One
Read Part Three
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.
August 26, 2019 § 4 Comments
The publication of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments in 1987 was a landmark event, establishing Gornick as a distinctive voice in the genre of memoir. Now, more than thirty years later, that book is experiencing renewed life in Europe, has been translated into ten languages, and recently earned first place in the New York Times‘ “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.”
Gornick followed up about a dozen years later with The Situation and The Story, explaining how she created the persona of an “unsurrogated narrator” to serve the story she wanted to tell in her memoir. The Situation and The Story became an indispensable guide to the literary strategies of creative nonfiction, popular in the classroom and often quoted.
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of the memoir Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts.
Part 1: Writing and Teaching The Situation and The Story
KATHLEEN B. JONES: You wrote The Situation and The Story almost 20 years ago.
VIVIAN GORNICK Oh, my god, is it that long?? (laughs)
JONES: What motivated you to write that book?
GORNICK: Well, actually, it started because somebody else came to me, a teacher of writing, and wanted to do this book together. I can’t remember how I knew her. She came to me with this proposal that we write a textbook together. And, of course, the lure was, we were going to make a fortune, because we would write a textbook that would be adopted all over the country (laughs). And, I agreed to it and got involved in it enough to see it really did interest me. We went along for a while but we really weren’t getting anywhere. We didn’t work well together, and I didn’t really know how to structure it for a textbook. She became, I thought—but who knows—she became exasperated with the difficulties that I posed. Probably it was out of frustration we were not going to make this thing work. So, I said, let’s abandon this. And once we abandoned it I realized that I had really become interested in writing, completely on my own, my version of what it meant to create a nonfiction persona. I realized I had been reading this stuff, and writing this stuff, and teaching this stuff for fifteen years by then. I thought it would be a piece of cake. But, it wasn’t, of course; it was really hard to structure. I thought it would take six months. It took two years (laughs).
JONES: It actually has become kind of a bible…
GORNICK: Yes, it has…
JONES: In many places…
GORNICK: I know; it’s taught all over the country. I’m amazed by it myself.
JONES: So if you were writing the book now, is there any way you would change it?
GORNICK: No! I look at it and I’m amazed at how good it is (laughs). I can’t believe I wrote it…It was really hard to write. I wrote a whole manuscript and I knew I hadn’t gotten it right. I just could feel in my gut it wasn’t in the right shape. I’m really a writer who needs an editor all the time; there’s a certain constipation in my own way of writing. I telescope too much in first drafts. I’m not sufficiently aware of what the reader actually has to know, or not know. I need somebody to set me straight. And a very talented editor at FSG all those years ago read [the manuscript]. He was brilliant about what I needed to do and how I needed to restructure it. Structure was everything. Just as, in the life of nonfiction writing, structure is everything. It took quite a while for me to figure out the elements that were necessary. The most important thing was developing my idea of the persona… which I lay out in the very beginning. The girl who is doing the eulogy and how she knows who she is in relation to the subject and therefore she knows how to write—that was very important.
JONES: In The Situation and The Story, you wrote about why you thought memoir writing was, at that time, felt as a particularly urgent call. You said modernist novels had been bypassed by this genre. Now, some critics declare the age of memoir writing to be over. You might read—ironically, in a New York Times book review of some new memoir—a critic saying she thought we were done with all this, but this book has really done something different with the form.
GORNICK: I really don’t know what to think. The reason that is said is because we live now in a time when every deluge is just gigantic. In a previous time, when one literary genre replaced another, you might have had hundreds, now you have thousands of instances. The memoir, the memoir, the memoir. So it’s a glut on the market.
Look, the fact of the matter is, most memoirs are not literature, and most novels are not literature. When a good one comes along, its power is felt all over again. I do believe that the passion for the novel has run its course for the time being. It doesn’t feel, not to me at any rate, that one looks forward to the next novel. You know, it’s so hard for me to have any really organized opinions about all this.
All I know is this: I grew up in a book culture which means that that book culture never had huge numbers of devotees. Where people took literature seriously, we all read the same books, we all read the same reviews, and we waited for the next book of a writer to come out. The reviewers in the New York Times Book Review were of a really high order. You had that whole generation of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, all those men who were very serious critics writing the Sunday Times Book Review. You don’t have anything of the sort anymore. All that has just dissolved. So what we have is this gigantic entertainment world and a world of celebrity where writers have become celebrities. It all feels hit or miss to me. I remain devoted to looking for the same experience in a book that I always look for. And when I say a book is good or not good it’s out of a mindset that was formed 50 years ago. So I really don’t know what to make of this business—the age of memoir. We’re talking about 20 years. I mean, we’re too old (laughter) to subscribe to that sort of thing as ‘the age’ or, better yet, ‘the era’.
JONES: Say more about that.
GORNICK: I do think the memoir will continue to be written more readily than the novel, and only a fraction of them are works that will last. I mean, they come and go, and most of them are not literature. They remain books of confession. Somebody writes a memoir about not being able to give birth to a baby and then what follows is her encounter with fertility clinics. There’s that. Or then there’s alcohol and there’s incest and there’s just a glut of stuff. I wrote [The Situation and The Story] out of what I thought was a serious consideration of serious books. I know people now who teach courses out of this book. They make their students read the books that I refer to. And the same with my other collection, The End of the Novel of Love, they teach out of that. And I’m thrilled by it. But they do it because they think those books I wrote about are serious examples and they can run the rest of time. There will never be a time when those books will not look good.
JONES: Surely those books you cited aren’t the only ones?
GORNICK: Oh, of course. There are always others.
JONES: Have you been in contact with people who use The Situation and The Story the way you describe?
JONES: Do they talk about how they structure their classes?
GORNICK: No, and that’s interesting. I should ask. I never have asked that. I shouldn’t say I’m in contact with people. I meet people all the time who tell me they teach it but I never have asked how exactly they teach it. Well, you probably know more.
JONES: I did teach it in a writing class.
GORNICK: How did you use it?
JONES: I used it as the main way to think about how to structure an essay and find the language and persona necessary to tell whatever the story was. And then we looked at other texts. Interestingly enough, this was not in a literary writing class, but in a course about writing a master’s thesis, with people from a variety of disciplines.
JONES: Some students were creative writers; others were writing in philosophy, or anthropology.
JONES: Each one of them had the situation of their research that she needed to turn into a story.
GORNICK: Exactly. Very good.
JONES: So that’s how I used it and tried to make it fit all these different disciplinary fields.
GORNICK: That must have been fun.
JONES: No matter what your field, you still have to write and you have to write well. You may be constrained by the structure of what a university tells you must be done for a thesis. But the narrative, the story, can bear all those same qualities you described.
GORNICK: My niece, who is in social policy, writes reports nonstop. She understands you have to be telling a story all the time. With her, it’s easy to see what her situation is—it’s the background of her discipline. But she knows, within that, you must tell a story and she’s made use of that. Just to clarify on that concept should help you.
JONES: Are you still teaching?
GORNICK: No, no. I try not to. I taught a couple of years ago in Iowa and I swore I’d rather go on welfare than do this again (laughs).
JONES: When you were teaching, how did you structure your workshops?
GORNICK: I had a very simple method. The workshop would just concentrate on the immediacy of what they were writing. I made all my students write 1,000 words every other week. A three-page piece. And then we would workshop them. I did not give out assignments, but the pieces would generate themselves out of the previous week’s discussion. I had no pedagogy.
JONES: Assigned readings?
GORNICK: For sure. A lot of the books I refer to in the books I wrote came out of those courses.
JONES: No in-class writing exercises?
GORNICK: No. these were graduate students. Gotta write.
JONES: At the end of The Situation and The Story, you wrote that all the years of teaching led you to conclude that you can’t teach people how to write but you can teach them how to read. How do you teach people how to read?
GORNICK: You depend upon them learning from the critiquing, if you’re going to teach people how to gain judgment about their own work—and what else are all these MFA programs about? They’re allowing people to write and to hear their own writing read in the company of others so that they see how it hits a reader, when it seems right and when it’s absolutely wrong. And through the critiquing, which keeps concentrating on the relation between the persona and the story in the situation, you learn by example. If you can’t learn by example you can’t learn. There’s nothing for you to memorize, no body of information that’s being passed on. It’s all a matter of experience; it’s a matter of doing it and hearing it done, and learning from that.
Now, I taught for 6 or 7 years at the University of Arizona, a perfectly standard, straightforward, conventional MFA program. It happened to be filled with perfectly ordinary people teaching. It also happened that David Foster Wallace was a student there. And he kept writing his stuff and he kept being told it was no good. Not a well-crafted novel.
Now, when you have someone like that, all bets are off. So, I think what it did for him was, it showed him he had to go his own way. And he had genius. He wrote Infinite Jest, a thousand or so page novel, soon after leaving the program.
So these programs are for the most ordinary of the ordinary. First of all, very, very few writers emerge from them. Very few. The mass of people go on to other lives. They’re not writers. They’re not writers; they’re wanna-bes. And so what you can teach, as I said, is you can teach someone how to read their own writing better. You can’t teach them how to do it better, unless , if someone has some writing talent, they can make better use of it because you’re being taught how to criticize yourself.
JONES: I think the books that you read while you’re in a program enable you to see how to write better.
JONES: Because you look at them and take them apart differently, instead of just being immersed in the plot.
GORNICK: Right, how did I become a writer? Out of City College’s English Department. Because of all the great books people put in my hands.
Part Two of this interview: The Other in Oneself
Part Three of this interview: Of Reading and Culture
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.
September 9, 2014 § 16 Comments
A guest craft essay by Paul Zakrzewski on narrative drive in the segmented memoir:
Recently, I found myself re-reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, a fabulous memoir-in-fragments about marriage and motherhood. And once again, I’m struck by a contradiction at the heart of the book:
How does the author create such narrative drive, such a fully realized portrait of a life, in a memoir whose form would appear to undercut these achievements?
Even if you don’t know Abigail Thomas’s memoir, it’s likely — especially if you’ve gotten an MFA in the past – you’ve heard it name-check. It’s one of those more experimental books, like Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which make the rounds in CNF courses. You know, the ones advisers push on you during conferences. The ones your classmates urge you to read in their manuscript margin notes.
The book is comprised of dozens of short sections—some four or five pages, others as brief as a single sentence. And while characters and motifs reoccur, each vignette is self-contained, so that at first glance the book looks more like a collection of prose poems. A disjointed one at that, with jumbled chronology, so there’s often years, sometimes decades, between sections.
Then there’s the narrator herself, frequently switching between past and present tense, or between first- and third-person.
With all that lack of connective tissue, all that shifting of tenses and point-of-view, you’d expect the narrative flow to be constantly disrupted.
Quite the opposite, though. Both times I’ve picked it up, the experience of reading Safekeeping has been the same: the gaps fall away, much the same way as clacks on a speeding train smooth themselves out.
How does Thomas accomplish this?
In at least four ways:
- Tight thematic control. As students of the genre are often reminded, the secret to a good memoir is some kind of focus—a subject, theme, or era, for example. Here, the narrator is squarely focused on the subject of grief. In a terrific essay called “Getting Started,” Thomas recounts how the book’s experimental form grew out an intense period of reflection:
When I began writing Safekeeping, which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir, I had no idea in hell what I was doing, all I knew was I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up.
The power of that grief is what pulls things together, giving the book its emotional stake, its sense of urgency.
- A strong narrative persona. Married for the first time at 18, remarried at 27—Abigail Thomas’s life was full of wrong turns. She’s got a lot of living under her belt. Yet the narrator here keeps things light and crisp, avoiding the trap of becoming overly self-judgmental. Instead, here the persona is vulnerable, startlingly honest, unsentimental, wry, and above all, entertaining.
In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes how great memoirs feature a “truth-telling” narrator. We trust the voices of writers like George Orwell or J. R. Ackerley or Annie Dillard because they seem so honest and self-aware. Thomas’s is one of these.
- Effective use of reflection. By nature, I fall more on the side of meditative essays than memoir. I don’t think in terms of scenes, at least not initially, but I can cogitate endlessly. It used to get my essays all tied up in knots. One thing that’s helped is to understand that reflection is more effective when it arises directly from action in scenes. As in this example, toward the beginning of Safekeeping:
…She looks at her watch. Two-thirty in the morning. She is tired, but nothing is wasted, she uses it to remember the old days. Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master. She looks out her window, uptown, at the water towers, at the squares of light in other windows. Where a man she hadn’t met back then, a man she was about to meet, a man whom she would love and hate and love again, a man with whom she would spend the next thirty years, give or take, has died. Died. It seems impossible. She can almost see his windows from her window. She can almost hear his voice. Anything might happen. She doesn’t want to go to bed.
Apart from some breathtaking lines (“Exhaustion is her servant, where once it was her master”), notice how Thomas weaves reflection in and out of specific moments. It’s nearly seamless.
- Strong endings. Thomas uses the short section or vignette as the basic building-block of her book. But like chapters or scenes in a more conventional memoir, each of these builds toward some epiphany, some moment of resolution. This propels the reader forward. Here’s one example, titled “Something Overheard,” in its entirety:
It was at a party in what was to become SoHo, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn’t catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, ‘Oh honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security.” Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. What was so funny? What did it mean?
Now I get it.
Notice how that long sentence at the beginning pushes forward, not just setting the scene but filling in telling details, growing more specific as it tumbles along. That, along with the repetition in the final sentences, sets us up for the narrator’s epiphany.
Thomas is also a master at conveying the multiplicity of time. Phrases like “…where a man she hadn’t met yet” and “what was to become Soho” create a bumping, vertiginous, cinematic rush. Even as we’re pinned to the here and now, memory reaches across many other moments in time.
* * *
Thematic control, a truth-telling persona, the effective use of reflection, strong endings. These elements are the building blocks of good memoir writing. Haven’t I been studying and reading about each of these for years? In countless workshops?
I just didn’t get it while I was reading Safekeeping the first time. I mean, I noticed some of these, but I was much more transfixed by the book’s unusual form.
Now I get it.
Paul Zakrzewski is a writer and teacher based in Santa Barbara, CA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more about his SoCal writing workshops at http://www.pzak.net/workshops.
April 30, 2013 § 8 Comments
I write in defense of the ordinary life. Two common impulses in writing autobiographically—what happened to me is important; what happened matters because it happened to me—are problematic, since very few of us experience dramatic, statistically rare events during our lives, and yet all of us experience, well, something. When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, the qualities of my experience or character don’t really matter in and of themselves. I try to recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive, something recognizable. With each essay, I begin with something that matters to me. Then I begin to consider, How might this matter to you? By which I mean, How might it matter?
“We only store in memory images of value,” says Patricia Hampl. Some days I believe this. Here are two tableaux from my adolescence, one wide-view, one close-up. The first: when I was a kid my dad would slip me a dollar or so each Saturday and off I’d go on my allowance walk. I’d head up Amherst and cut through the apartments toward Wheaton Newsstand, where I’d happily withstand the crossfire between Topps baseball cards and Penthouse Forum, clear plastic wrapper versus brown paper, and, clutching my Cherry Smash soda, head toward Barbarian Bookstore across Georgia Avenue to peruse old paperbacks and men’s magazines in the musty aroma of oldness. After a stop at Wheaton Plaza, or Highs for a Slurpee, I’d wind back toward home, slowly, always wanting to put off my arrival, prizing, without knowing why, my aloneness.
The second: at the family dinner table one night, the usual cheerful din made by the eight of us, and in memory I jump-cut to my mom, her eyes wet, her face red, pushing away from the table and blurting out, “Maybe if I had a broken arm, you could see how much it hurt!” and dashing upstairs to her bedroom. We’d ignored her migraine headache, or made light of it, or something equally awful, until she was forced to make a highly uncharacteristic dramatic scene. Dismal silence and grief reigned at the table afterward.
Who cares? That these separate events from my childhood linger in me doesn’t make them subjects; it renders them private material, sentimentally stoked in the dark of my memory and imagination. To elevate them from common, trivial memory, I hope to discover (if I’m lucky) what about them might be representational. Wallace Stevens explored the contours of a metaphor, declaring that “An ordinary object slightly turned becomes a metaphor of that object.” What more ordinary an object is there than myself? It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human.
If, after Stevens, I turn myself slightly during my allowance walk, I’m the explorer, the wanderer, a boy crossing from childhood to adolescence (from Reggie Jackson to Marilyn Chambers) beginning an exile from innocence that’s repeated everywhere: a journey from the bright, unlimited sun of childhood to the dimmer, more complicated afternoons of adulthood. At the dinner table that night, after mom fled upstairs, what of that? I can see if I look again that the child in that moment is deepened by dimension: a solipsist, unhappy to learn that he was cruel, and at the same what it feels like to be ashamed. How intricate and surprising and complex it is to love.
Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.
I once wrote about an incident when I was ten and stole a cheap plastic ring from a boardwalk store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where my family was staying on vacation. Recently I read Gary Wills’s slim biography of St. Augustine and happened upon Wills’s account of a young Augustine stealing pears from an orchard. Both gestures—mine and the future Bishop of Hippo’s—were petty and inconsequential, boys’ malfeasances. Is it extraordinary or ordinary, the way two people separated by centuries, continents, and circumstances (not to mention less tangible characteristics) overlapped in a surprising, graphic way? Someone might accuse me of comparing myself to St. Augustine; theology will say that he becomes extraordinary, but in that moment he’s an ordinary teen. What I feel I’m doing is recognizing something emblematic in unrelated gestures of two wandering youths.
Perversely, the goal of an autobiographical essayist is both to dramatize the personal and to shed personality. I don’t mean that an essayist’s personality shouldn’t be present, far from it, but by the end of the essay the particulars of her personality—the moving parts that got the writer and the reader this far—should blur and morph into that abstract silhouette of the human, an outline into which the reader might fit, too.
Joe Bonomo’s new book is This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, a collection of essays. His other books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (edited). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas.com).
April 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Virginia Lloyd recapping last weekend’s Stalking the Essay Conference:
Phillip Lopate, who convened the inaugural “Stalking the Essay” conference on Saturday 6th April in his capacity as the director of Columbia University’s graduate nonfiction program, described his quarry as an “enigmatic beast,” both “ubiquitous and elusive.”
For any serious reader of essays the line-up of this conference was a dream. Gathered under the ornate roof of the Italian Academy on Amsterdam Avenue were the likes of Vivian Gornick, Michael Greenberg, Margo Jefferson, Patricia Hampl, Daniel Mendelsohn, Katha Pollitt, David Shields, Ned Stuckey-French and Colm Toibin. Even more miraculously, it was free.
After typing and scribbling from 10.00 am to 5.30 pm I drew these twin themes from the day’s discussions.
The necessity of doubt
Montaigne said, “If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.” Thankfully for us he was the indecisive sort. His idea of the essay as the proper form for the doubting mind echoed through every panel session.
Phillip Lopate called the structure and strategies of the essay “mysterious,” remaining “receptive to doubt and self-doubt.” English professor Branca Arsić described Emerson’s essaying as “the writing of selfless undecidedness.” During the discussion “The Column as Essay,” law professor and columnist for The Nation, Patricia J Williams characterized her family tradition as being split between W. B. Dubois on one side and Emerson on the other. She contended that this twin intellectual path led her to think of the essay as “a way of giving voice to the experience of double vision.” Margo Jefferson, during the session “Criticism and the Essay,” invoked Marianne Moore’s idea of “accessibility to experience” to suggest the validity of “the kind of authority you can get at through ambivalence, uncertainty, a kind of vulnerability.”
Vivian Gornick, the author of eight books including the memoir-writing classic The Situation and the Story, spoke of having to learn to trust her own feelings in order to establish a reliable point of view, which she maintains is the key to writing essays. “I found that the point of view so necessary to a work should be breathing through the subject,” she said. How did she accomplish this? “I set myself the task of trying to understand how I felt in relation to the subject at hand, in order to bring some depth and authority to what I had to trust were legitimate feelings. I had to see what I was feeling in relation to the world.”
The essay as a self-dramatizing form
Colm Toibin described his initial reluctance to review the books about homosexuality that The London Review of Books began sending him. Once he began writing the reviews, he was surprised to discover that it gave him a way of “writing about himself without writing about himself.”
Daniel Mendelsohn observed that most of the conference panelists felt the need to begin autobiographically when talking about criticism, tracing the paths by which each found his or her footing in the essay form. He felt this reflected a kind of anxiety around the contemporary essayist’s authority. He traced this to technology, which has passed criticism into the hands of readers, and to pervasive commercialism, in which judgments about works of art have become reductive – yes or no, thumbs up or down.
“The essay is important because it is long,” Mendelsohn said. “I am in favor of length because it is a way of combating the reductiveness of so many forms of judgment circulating in culture. But also discursiveness is good. The critical essay ends with a judgment, but the drama of the form is how you arrive at your judgment, the argument of it. The form fights against its own conclusiveness. The expansiveness of the essay allows you to be both abstract and judgmental, but it is deeply subjective because it’s your judgment. The way that you arrive at your judgment, the way by which you form your conclusions – that is how you become yourself on the page. What is interesting is what I can do only in a long essay, which is to understand why I think the way that I do about the thing I am writing about.”
The essay, which enacts the drama of the divided self in its very form, seems particularly well suited to our age of anxiety, in which none of us claims or wishes to claim total confidence or authority in the subjects we write about. Phillip Lopate confessed during the conference that it was his dream to establish a Center for the Essay at Columbia. If the popularity of “Stalking the Essay” is anything to go by, he may well get his wish.
Virginia Lloyd is an author, essayist and literary agent with a blog at www.virginialloyd.com.
March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
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 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/
February 2, 2012 § 9 Comments
Shanna Mahin at the Pen Center blog makes an impassioned defense of the too-often-maligned memoir genre. Like Shanna, we wonder why these same attacks and questions come up time and again. To our critics: try writing a strong literary memoir. There isnothing easy or therapeutic about it:
Here’s the thing: good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Naipaul said it … I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott, Cheryl Strayed, and … Samantha Dunn. I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.
… If you’re an aspiring memoirist and you’re participating in a workshop or a conference or a class somewhere, PLEASE let go of the idea that this is some sort of therapy for you. You’re not helping the cause. I’m not insensitive to the notion that you might need some therapy. I think we can all use some therapy. I’m a big fan. But the classroom is not the place for that. Your first clue is that there’s no couch.
… Which is not to say that the writing process isn’t therapeutic or that you won’t have realizations on the page, but if you’re telling a story that sounds like a soap opera, with angels and demons and someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snidley Whiplash, well, you’re probably doing it wrong.
March 11, 2010 § Leave a comment
From our friends at Welcome Table Press:
It’s not too late to register for “In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form,” the first annual Welcome Table Press symposium.
The day-long event will be held on Saturday, April 24th, at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan, and will feature presentations by Robert Atwan, Brian Doyle, Vivian Gornick, Lia Purpura, and Emily Grosholz. The symposium will also include two panel discussions, one on teaching (with Paul Lisicky, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, Elizabeth Stone, and Linda Underhill) and one on publishing, with representatives from Best American Essays, Creative Nonfiction, Essay Press, Fourth Genre, Graywolf Press, the New York Review of Books, Portland Magazine, the Sun, and others.
Come and join us for this exciting event, which also includes an afternoon tea and book signings.
For more information and a downloadable registration form/schedule, follow this link: http://www.welcometablepress.org/Upcoming_Events_UA7Z.html
Proceeds from registration fees will benefit Welcome Table Press, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit press dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay.