Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine
My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27. Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.
I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue. If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.
To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.
A Note from A Canadian Reader
I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader. It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.
“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”
Talks, Readings, Workshops and Seminars
I’ve added quite a few events to my appearance schedule in recent weeks. Check the Talks page for a full list. If you’d like to discuss a possible talk or reading in your area, please contact me using the Contact form on the About page.
I’ll Be a Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in March
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.
I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax. St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often. The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.
The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon. I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!
I’m off hunting new prey this summer (actually, working on a new book) but I’ll be back in October with more news and stories. I hope you’ll check back then.
Using the “I” in Biography and Other Writing About Others
Two days ago I wrote about the use of biography in memoir. Today I want to address the use of memoir in biography—or, to be more exact, writing about others that includes the author as a character. This is done quite often in profile writing. Susan Orlean, for example, begins one of her best-known profiles, “The American Male at Age 10,” with a whimsical imagining of how things would be if she and her 10-year-old subject were to marry. (Spoiler alert: It ends with the boy slingshoting dog food at her butt). In many profiles, the author isn’t just an interviewer or chronicler; she’s part of the story.
The presence of the writer/interviewer is an expected feature of Q & A’s, of course. In the best of them, what we witness—what we enter into—is less an interview than a conversation, a give-and-take discussion between two intelligent people. Yes, the discussion leans toward the ideas and work of one of the two participants, but the interviewer plays a significant role, bringing not only her knowledge but also her thoughts and personality to the interaction.
Even so, there is a curious reluctance among biographers and critics to allow a biographer to appear in his narrative. One reviewer of my biography of Robert Lax took me to task for doing so, saying dismissively that I should have written a second book, a memoir, if I wanted to write about our relationship. A more respectful reviewer for a different publication suggested more delicately that “readers will differ as to whether the author’s injection of his own voice in the text adds to or distracts from his subject’s life story.”
Yet it seemed false to leave myself out of a book about a man I’d known well for 15 years, and I took pains to do all of the research any biographer would do to write the full story of Lax’s life. In fact, those same reviewers who questioned my presence in the text praised the extensiveness of my research. I felt—and many readers (and reviewers) have agreed—that my intimate knowledge of my subject allowed me to bring him more fully to life. The New York Times’ reviewer, in fact, called my “memoir” sections “vivid and engaging.” Which shouldn’t be surprising, of course, since they came from direct observation and experience rather than a piecing together of quotes from letters and interviews.
It strikes me as strange that an author’s personal account would be denigrated when biographers regularly use any and all writings in which other people describe encounters with their subjects. I can understand the suspicion that writing about someone you knew well and even admired might prejudice your account. And there are any number of questionable biographies written by members of a subject’s inner circle—biographies that betray an agenda. But why would use of the “I” or first-person observation indicate an agenda or hidden bias any more than any other way of writing about a person? Hackwork is hackwork, whatever its point of view.
And there is a point of view in biography, whether acknowledged or not. In recent decades, nonfiction writers, in general, have abandoned the so-called “objective” approach to writing about their subjects, recognizing that all writing is subjective, influenced not only by one’s particular experiences and education but also gender, class, race, sexual orientation, national origin, philosophy, creed, etc.
Despite this more general awareness in nonfiction writing, biographers continue to write in—and in many cases, insist on—a mostly Victorian style, composing their cradle-to-grave narratives as if taking dictation from God—as if the story they’re telling about their subject is simply fact-based truth. In his book How to Write Biography: A Primer, for example, Nigel Hamilton, who fills his pages with all kinds of good advice for first-time biographers, never discusses the possibility of using the “I,” except when castigating Edmund Morris for injecting a fake “I” into his biography of Ronald Reagan.
What is most curious of all, perhaps, is that virtually all biographers praise a book in which the “I”—and, to some extent, memoir—figures prominently: James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. One of the main things they praise, in fact, is how fully Boswell brings his friend to life by describing Johnson as he knew him, relating words Johnson said in his presence, and showing Johnson in scenes he witnessed. In my copy of Boswell’s book, 242 pages cover Johnson’s 54 years of life before Boswell met him (when Johnson was 54) and 1,001 pages are about the 21 years Boswell knew him. In other words, 4/5 of the book is drawn, to a large extent, from Boswell’s personal relationship with his subject, rendered in text peppered with Boswell’s “I.”
There are biographers who use the “I,” of course—even extreme prejudice among peers against a particular technique can’t keep some brave souls from employing it. When J.D. Salinger kept would-be biographer Ian Hamilton from using quotes from his letters and interviewing people close to him, Hamilton turned his book into a search for knowledge about his subject, “incorporating within it,” as the book’s jacket copy says, “his own sometimes poignant, sometimes comic, sometimes exasperating quest for Salinger.”
The researching and writing of any biography is a quest. A personal endeavor. Not every biography has to include the details of that quest, but there’s no good reason why a biography shouldn’t either. A biography is a story, an encounter, a vision and version of a person’s life. I, for one, enjoy when a biographer like A.J.A. Symons, in his book The Quest for Corvo, takes me along on the researching adventure, using whatever material will best engage me and bring his story most vividly to life.
Memoir Monday #2 — Who Am I?
In my memoir writing classes last week, we discussed Vivian Gornick’s fine little book on personal writing, The Situation and the Story. In her introductory section, Gornick explains her idea that all of the raw material used in personal writing and even what we might normally call the story itself—the plot or action—is just “situation.” No matter how extraordinary what we want to write about might be, it won’t have an impact on a reader until we discover what we have to say about it. What its meaning is to us. What our emotional journey through it is. This is what Gornick calls the “story” and I sometimes call the journey: the writer’s personal movement through the material.
In her great new book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr uses different language for what seems to be the same distinction. She talks about outer experience that needs to be shaped and an inner conflict, even an “inner enemy” ( a writer’s “psychic struggle against her self that works like a thread or plot engine”).
Gornick talks about finding the right “persona,” the version of ourselves that can best tell the story to be told. “Its tone of voice,” she writes, “its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator—or the persona—sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.”
It is this intimacy between subject and the narrator’s particular vision—or voice—that makes good personal writing compelling. In praising George Orwell’s personal writing, Gornick cites his “wholly successful fusion of experience, perspective, and personality.” Karr says bluntly: “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” She calls voice the “delivery system for the author’s experience.”
“Voice isn’t just a manner of talking,” Karr writes. “It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past.”
Both writers emphasize, each in her own way, making—and expressing—such an intimate connection to one’s material that both the experience being written about and the writer’s way of viewing it—and life itself—come alive.
In order to get to this kind of intimacy, Gornick says in her section on memoir, the writer must ask clearly and truthfully: Who am I? “On that question the writer of memoir must deliver,” she writes. “Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”
Here’s where things get interesting, I think. When beginning a memoir, Who am I? is not the simplest question, even to ask. Yes, it’s the writing itself that tackles the question, the “depth of inquiry” taken on. But what “I” is the writer seeking to know? Is it the “I” that is writing in the present moment or the “I” that is central to the tale being told? Is Who am I? an enduringly existential question that can be answered once, or is it a provisional question, leading to a provisional answer? And if I achieve clarity on who I was back then, in the time I’m writing about, does that mean I’m any closer to knowing who I am today? Or is it the relationship between the two—the then-I and the now-I—a memoirist is really seeking?
These questions are especially important to me right now because I’m writing about a period in my life other than childhood, which is the subject of most memoirs (or at least first memoirs). I was an adult already then, even old by some determinations, yet I would not say that who I was then is the same as who I am today. I’m interested in exploring who I was then and how I came to be that person but also in how that period shaped the person I became after that.
One other thing I’ve been thinking about this week: You can’t approach writing a memoir as a writer only, thinking about how to construct it so it has the most impact. You have to approach it first as a human being, seeking to understand yourself in a way you haven’t before. Maybe this thought is self-evident to many, but it’s easy for a writer (and writing teacher) to get caught up in form and audience and expression too soon. I suppose it feels safer to enter the dark with pen in hand.
The Hermit and the Mystic: Wisdom from the Woods
A friend sent me a link to a GQ article about a man who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. The only thing he said to anyone in all those years was the single word “Hi” to a hiker he passed one day. Although the article is titled “The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit” and the author, Michael Finkel, refers to the man, Christopher Knight, repeatedly as a hermit, when asked if he was one, Knight said:
“When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me. Strange idea to me. I had never thought of myself as a hermit. Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy.”
Knight had been nicknamed the North Pond Hermit by people who owned the summer cabins from which he stole food and propane and other needs without being seen. According to my dictionary’s definition—“a person who lives alone in a lonely or secluded spot, often from religious motives; recluse”—Knight certainly was a hermit. He lived alone in a tent surrounded by boulders and a thicket of brush and trees it was hard to see through. But he denied having religious motives, or any religious feelings at all. And he made it clear to Finkel that he never felt lonely.
I’ve been thinking about the label “hermit” over the past few years because some have called the man I wrote my book about, Robert Lax, a hermit. I’ve never been comfortable with this label for Lax because he didn’t retreat to a “lonely or secluded spot” or separate himself from people, except to contemplate and write. I’ve come to realize, though, that when people use the word “hermit” they often mean “mystic”: a hermit, to their mind, being someone who retreats from the world to meditate or pray and reach a higher consciousness.
I’m more comfortable calling Lax a mystic because there’s no question he attained “intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths through meditation” (the dictionary again). And, despite Knight’s rejection of religion, despite the thievery that kept him alive, I think he became a bit of a mystic, too.
The only time he prayed, Knight said, was when the temperature went below negative twenty degrees. (“That’s when you do have religion,” he said. “You do pray. You pray for warmth.”) But he meditated from time to time, especially when he feared death, and his quotes in the GQ article suggest he came to understandings of life that usually come only to mystics. Here are a couple of the more intriguing ones:
“‘What I miss most [Knight said] is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.’ He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp.” (An ability to be completely still and completely in the moment, attuned to the natural world.)
“Solitude did increase my perception [Knight said]. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.” (The disappearance of the ego and a resulting freedom from the self.)
While waiting in jail for the court’s decision on his theft charges, Knight said:
“I am retreating into silence as a defensive move…I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.”
“Sitting here in jail, I don’t like what I see in the society I’m about to enter. I don’t think I’m going to fit in. It’s too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia.”
The article ends with Knight being released from jail to live with his mother but wishing he could simply return to the woods. I’m reminded of the custom among some Native American tribes to have their young retreat to secluded places on their own to find themselves in some way. What if we had this kind of custom in America, or at least allowed people like Knight to live in nature undisturbed? What insights might we obtain that we as a society desperately need–especially in this time of superficiality, noise, violence and greed?
Note: One of my new projects is a book about a year my wife and I spent in a small cabin in the woods in the San Juan Islands: what that time and way of living showed me.
Thoreau, Gandhi, Malcolm X: Books About Spiritual Quests
The following post appeared today on the Combined Academic blog in England, in celebration of Robert Lax’s 100th birthday:
THE HIDDEN AND THE TANGIBLE by Michael N. McGregor
I don’t know when I first put spiritual and quest together. In my childhood church the word spiritual was seldom used, so I never thought about it. It took on meaning when I heard it spoken in the plural, applied to moving songs by enslaved people. It still bears that soul-deep sound for me, the suffering and longing for freedom.
Quest, I’m sure, came first through knights and Argonauts, the tales and myths of boyhood. While spiritual sounds softer, more ethereal, quest suggests a hardy physical journey, a dauntless searching through the material world. It’s the joining of these elements—the soft and hard, the hidden and the tangible—that gives the term spiritual quest a holistic feel, a sense that it involves one’s whole being.
I was well into writing my biography of poet Robert Lax before I realized that it was the story of a spiritual quest. This realization got me thinking about the books that influenced me when I was young, most of which, I found, had spiritual quests at their core.
The first that came to mind was Walden, which I first read in high school. It made me want to homestead in the Canadian woods just north of my Seattle home. I don’t remember Thoreau calling his solitary living a spiritual quest, but his book is full of things described in holy ways: the woods, the lake, the west. The benefits of simple living. His quest was for a way to live that kept him in the moment and in nature. His physical movement was small—a short walk from his Concord home—but he roamed continents in his thoughts, explored exotic lands within his soul.
The second book I thought of—Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—is more focused on movement, in this case a motorcycle ride, but that movement is even less necessary in terms of getting places than Thoreau’s walk from Concord. What’s more important for Pirsig is being away from one’s regular routine, out where paying close attention is both possible and needed. There, a mindful focus on the seemingly mundane unlocks his narrator’s thoughts about the Greek ideal of Quality, a value he finds lacking in the modern world.
I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal the third book that came to me, The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, because I’m not sure I read it. It’s possible I only saw the Bill Murray movie. In the film, Murray plays a man who returns from World War I traumatized by his experiences. He rejects the regular life offered him and sets off on a quest for meaning. His quest takes him through the things that matter to other people, all the ways they seek fulfillment, including books. In the scene I remember most, he sits outside, alone and cold, somewhere in Asia, feeding pages from a suddenly useless book into a warming fire. He has realized that what gives life meaning is ineffable.
Two other books that came to mind don’t describe journeys per se. Not chosen ones, at least. One is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he explores the psychological states of Holocaust victims. A Holocaust survivor himself, Frankl finds that the survivors’ most important trait was the understanding that in any circumstance, no matter how dire, we retain the freedom to choose our attitude toward it.
The other book is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays drawn from Baldwin’s life that echo Frankl’s thinking. Instead of focusing only on the individual, though, Baldwin looks at our society. Not only do we have the ability to choose our attitudes, he says, but the choices we make determine our common future. The quest implied in both these books is to become a person who can make what are, in essence, spiritual choices.
The last three books I thought of are all a type of spiritual autobiography and so, I guess, more truly fit the category: Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (in which I first encountered Robert Lax).
I found Gandhi’s book tedious in places but his story of becoming sensitized to the world’s needs through experiences of prejudice and encounters with the less fortunate inspired me to pursue more of these encounters myself. Once again, my memory of a book has been altered by a movie. Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” shows him riding through India in a third-class train car to learn about the life of the common people. In the scene I remember most, he sits in his homespun clothes, still and aware, absorbing the noise and chaos of the lives around him rather than fleeing. It is this acceptance of the moment, his poorer countrymen’s reality, that allows Gandhi to transcend his privilege and become a true leader.
Malcolm X’s book is even more clearly about the struggle with one’s self as well as with society. In many ways it is the most extraordinary book on this list because Malcolm X had only his own awareness and fire to change him from an angry hustler for whom racial oppression is a given into a touchstone for whites as well as blacks, an evolving consciousness enlarged by his mistakes as well as his triumphs.
Merton’s book is the one that most emphasizes the spiritual. It’s tempting to say that he had fewer physical things to struggle against—he wasn’t a victim of racism or a Holocaust survivor; he didn’t have the mental problems of Pirsig’s narrator or the horrifying memories of Maugham’s hero—yet Merton was aware that his main struggle was against his worldly self: his complacency, his egoism, his misplaced desires. Nothing outside his own consciousness forced him to confront himself and the life he was living. Yet he was willing to relinquish everything to find the meaning he desired, to reject all physical comfort in pursuit of a purely spiritual good.
So what has been the benefit of reading these books? Awareness, I suppose. Increased sensitivity. And camaraderie across the ages: a feeling that I’m not alone in my own spiritual pursuits. These fellow seekers give me courage and models to remember when my own struggles, however comparatively small, sometimes seem too much.
Michael N. McGregor is the author of the new biography Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (Fordham University Press, 2015) . A former journalist and editor, he is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Portland State University.
The photograph used at the beginning of this post was taken by Michael McGregor.
Thoughts on the Refugees Crossing to Greece
When the Greek islands were hospitable to strangers
Recently the online world has been filled with images of people in desperate conditions, images not from Pakistan or Syria but from the Greek islands closest to Turkey: Chios, Lesbos, Leros. One picture showed a migrant raft landing near sunbathing tourists on Kos, an island I once knew well. It was a way station on my yearly visits to the nearby island of Patmos, where St. John was once a refugee himself. I went there to visit another immigrant to Greece: a spiritual poet named Robert Lax, who was Thomas Merton’s best friend.
Lax made his home in Greece, first on the island of Lesbos, then on Kalymnos, and finally on Patmos. One reason he did this was that the Greek Orthodox islanders lived their Christian faith more deeply and fully than other people he’d known, and this included following the biblical injunction to show hospitality to strangers. When Lax landed on Lesbos in 1962 and then traveled through the islands, people came out of their homes to give him things—loaves of fresh bread, water from a well, an apronful of almonds.
They did this because he was a stranger passing through a land that had few strangers in it. And because they believed the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Even when I started visiting in the 1980s, the Greek islanders were still overwhelmingly hospitable, calling out to me to offer oranges or water or ouzo.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I witnessed a different response to people entering the country. As I walked to a beach on Patmos one day, a voice called out to me. Off to my left in a decrepit building—a onetime school or government structure—the second-floor windows were lined with thin, dark-skinned men apparently being detained. The one calling out asked me to come nearer. When I did, he pantomimed that he wanted a pen. When I pulled one out of my pocket, he lowered a kind of bucket on a rope made of rags. Then, as the men in the windows were smiling and nodding their thanks, two Greek women arrived with bags of supplies for them—cigarettes and food and sodas. These women may have been the last remnant of those who once greeted strangers openly.
I don’t know if the men in that building were Albanians, who were the main Greek refugees then, or if they were part of the first wave of what has become a flood of Middle Easterners seeking a haven in Europe. The number of refugees pouring into Greece this year, most of them fleeing the fighting in Syria, is more than ten times last year’s number. An estimated 50,000 people entered Greece in July alone. And the conditions they are kept in—in this once-hospitable country—are worse than those I saw as a journalist in refugee camps on the Cambodian border and off the coast of Malaysia during the era of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese boat people.
No doubt some of the Christian people in Greece are calling the refugees crossing the watery border “criminals,” “terrorists,” and even “rapists,” as migrants have been called by some in the U.S. Given the economic situation, it makes sense that Greeks would be afraid. The once healthy flow of EU money has thinned, and unemployment—even without migrants—is at 25 percent (50 percent among youth). Where, though, I wonder, lies the line between biblical hospitality and self-preservation?
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,” says Proverbs 19:17, “and he will reward them for what they have done.” The question for God, I suppose, is Is there a limit? Can you really expect us to welcome anyone? What about our own safety?
When he was young, the poet Lax, like his friend Merton, chose to live simply, without possessions he’d need to protect. But he did it out in the world, on his own, not in a monastery. His small house on Patmos had a lock, but he left the key in the outside slot. I wonder now, 15 years after his death, as people are celebrating his centenary and Merton’s, how he would view these refugees. I wonder, too, how I should view them, having known and written a book about him. Having been a Christian all my life.