September 11, 2018 § 9 Comments
When my family arrived at the beach this year, my two teenage boys ran to the surf. They didn’t hesitate as they dove through the curling waves. I wasn’t so bold. I meandered to the shoreline and let the waves lap my feet. I waded in further. I watched the kids beyond the break. At some point, they tried to pull me in. I resisted. They laughed, rolled their eyes, and told me to dive in. I moved out deeper until the waves broke against my waist. After too much agony, I finally dove.
“It’s about time,” the boys called. “What took you so long?”
Why did I do this to myself? Why didn’t I dive in like they did? I knew how. But I got stuck. What if a wave knocked me over? What if I stepped on a broken shell?
I find myself hesitating on the shore when I’m writing too, questioning my story rather than letting it flow. Learning to trust I have a story to tell has challenged me as a novice non-fiction writer. It didn’t help that I spent part of my beach vacation reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which sent me into an existential spiral of self-doubt. I wanted to edit every sentence I’d written. Not a bad thing, but I was on vacation. I hadn’t even realized I had a trust problem until my mentor focused on a couple of sentences I’d dropped into my memoir about three drafts ago. She returned the draft to me with a note telling me to “DIG DEEP HERE.” It was a “very important moment in the narrative.”
I couldn’t ignore her comment. She was the third person to make it. Why didn’t I trust the others’ feedback? But I wasn’t ready to jump in. Instead, I played with sentences, changing a word here or there, hoping that would fix it. It didn’t, any more than watching the waves would get me into the surf. Yet I knew by now I had to address it, not play around with it, however uncomfortable I was. I had to wrestle with my past, with my rocky relationship with my mom. I had to tell the truth about a lie I told to my daughter and why I told it.
Yet, there I was again, standing at the water’s edge. Stuck. I thought about what I needed to write as I walked my dog each morning. I brought my pages to therapy and talked to about what I needed to write and why it was so hard. When I commented I thought I could cover the material in a paragraph, my therapist laughed.
“Oh, it’ll be more than a paragraph.”
After days of inching toward the deep water, I remembered what I learned from Allison K Williams at a memoir workshop earlier this summer. She emphasized how important it was to “deal honestly” with our own behavior, including our bad behavior. While we could be heroes in our stories, “even heroes mess up,” Williams wrote in a recent blog, Heroes and Villains.
I had to dive into my inner villain. I wrote and rewrote. I re-read the paragraphs. I liked them, particularly the simplicity of how I ended the section. I put it down and came back to it a day or two later. Then the doubt crashed over me. I wrote a few more sentences to make my point, forgetting that once was enough. I sent the revised section to my mentor. She loved it. Except she said, I over-explained. I began moralizing. I should have trusted my original ending. My kids would have rolled their eyes at me.
I told my mentor, I needed to trust myself more.
It’s not easy.
“Trust your material,” Zinsser wrote. “It seems hard advice to follow.”
The more I trust my writing, the better it becomes. I see the weaknesses on the page, particularly my desire to tie everything up neatly. To keep the trust, I’ve given myself a new editing tool. I read my work aloud and ask myself whether my teens would roll their eyes at me. If they would, I know I did it again. I let those sentences go, scattered like broken shells on the shore, and dive.
Christine Corrigan is a writer. Her essays have appeared in Dreamer’s Creative Writing, Grown & Flown, Purple Clover, Racked.com, Wildfire Magazine, and elsewhere. At 51, she’s working on her first book, a memoir about surviving cancer twice. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Find her on Twitter @CPCorrigan2.
April 2, 2012 § 3 Comments
Aaron Gilbreath offers a very interesting take on the acceptability of the composite quote by looking at the work of pioneer New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell:
Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?
In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.
July 25, 2009 § Leave a comment
The NY Times is running a nice series of tributes to Frank McCourt, as they should. He was a sweet man and a fine writer. Today, a few prominent writers and editors weigh in on how McCourt influenced the memoir genre.
William Zinsser offers some interesting thoughts:
Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” turned things around, along with Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club,” Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life” and Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life.”
Those memoirs dealt with childhoods every bit as terrible as those written by the whiners and the bashers, but they were written with love and forgiveness. These writers were as hard on their younger selves as they were on their elders. They were saying, in effect, we come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived to tell the story.
And I love this, from James Atlas:
I find it moving that it took Frank McCourt until the age of 65 to find his story and work up the nerve to write it. Asked once at a literary panel what he’d been doing all that time, he answered in his still-strong Irish brogue: “Recoverin’.”