Today’s writing lesson: Remember when writing memoir that there are always two perspectives in your story.
I’m nearing the end of what I expect to be the final revision of a memoir I’ve been working on for a number of years. It’s focused on a year my wife Sylvia and I lived in the woods on an island off the coast of Washington State. I was on my first sabbatical as a professor and was hoping for a peaceful year dedicated to writing and living simply. But that year turned out to be something else entirely. It was, as the book’s subtitle says, A Year In the Wilds of Nature, Death and Art.
With its meditations on solitude, simplicity, living a life of meaning, and the healing power of nature, I’m hoping the book will resonate with people who have spent the past year contemplating those kinds of things.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
As I neared the fawn, it settled down, not in a conscious way but in the manner of dying. A leg twitched. Then its jaw. Then it lay still. I studied the white patch on its side, the way its sable hair gave way to its black hooves. The eye I could see was still open but I didn’t want to look at it. I didn’t want to see the dimming, the dullness, the loss of lucidity I’d seen in the deer that grazed around the cabins. In the end, I looked anyway, and what I saw moved me deeply. The eye looked limpid, liquid, and peaceful, like water I could see to the depths of, and it had a quality to it I hadn’t seen in the living. There is this, at least, in death it seemed to say: an absence of pain. Of fear. Of worry. It seemed the kindest eye I’d ever seen, the kind I wished to turn myself toward animals and trees and people.
Thirty-five years ago, in a simpler and less-connected time, I had my first experience with self-isolating. After traveling through Europe with a friend, I caught the nine-hour ferry to the Greek island of Patmos by myself. I didn’t know anyone there. In fact, after my friend flew home, I didn’t know anyone within thousands of miles of where I was. There was no internet in those days, of course, and I was too poor to afford what was then the high cost of international calls. For the two months I planned to be on Patmos, I would have no contact, even by mail, with anyone I knew.
I didn’t remember at the time that Patmos was where an earlier man, now a saint, had spent time in isolation. I chose it only because I had vowed to take the first ferry out whenever I was ready to go and it was the first stop. A Greek man told me it was beautiful—which it turned out to be, although it was January, when Patmos is swept by fierce wind and the temperature hovers near freezing.
Broke and needing the cheapest possible place to stay, I managed to secure what was usually a summer-only apartment for just three dollars a day. It had two beds in a modest main room, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and a balcony big enough for one person, with a view out over the fields to the distant sea. I couldn’t believe my luck—until a few hours later when I realized why it was a summer-only place: It was made entirely of concrete and had no heat.
My main reason for secluding myself on an island in a country I’d never been to before was to set down the first draft of a novel. I was only 27 but I’d been a writer for over a decade and veered into journalism to support myself despite wanting to write fiction. Now I had my chance. I set strict rules for my island time. I had to type for at least eight hours a day before doing anything else. (I later amended that to six hours.) Thinking didn’t count; only the time my fingers were actually pecking away. I could go for walks but only after the day’s writing was done. The same was true of reading. The one exception was Sunday, which I took off as a day of rest.
The only person I spoke to that first month, other than a brief word or two with my landlord, was an Australian woman who ran the closest grocery store, and my conversations with her never lasted more than a few minutes. When I walked, I walked alone, except for three stray dogs that seemed to take turns accompanying me along the shore road. I thought of them as angels sent to keep me company. No matter when I walked, even near midnight, one would appear and amble beside me. Never more than one and never in a way that disrupted my thinking. They never begged for my attention and I never petted them. When our walk ended, they simply peeled off and headed home.
When I went to bed at night, warmed only by several thin blankets—or, later, when the sneezing and shivering made me to beg my landlord for some kind of heat, a cheap aluminum heater—I usually lay awake for a while. Because my nighttime thoughts were uninterrupted, I often woke up the next morning not knowing whether something I remembered had been a conscious thought or a dream.
Sometimes during these nighttime reveries, I’d return to some place in my past. Free of present concerns, I was astonished at how well I remembered things, including, one night, my grandparents’ house, where I had lived for a summer as a small child and visited regularly until my grandfather died when I was ten. I found I could walk through the house and remember everything, even photographs hidden from view behind doors. I remembered the smell of the rusted screen on the open window in the attic room where I slept on the floor—the Dr. Seuss books stacked beside me and my grandparents’ winter clothes zipped into bags beyond the half-wall. I remembered that the bathroom wallpaper was black but full of colorful dots. I remembered my grandfather’s tools above the worktable at the bottom of the basement stairs, the perennial five-gallon tub of vanilla ice cream kept in the freezer there, and the back room I liked to play in alone, where they stored their extra furniture: a room-sized collection of various forts.
When I wasn’t thinking about my novel or remembering earlier times, I was praying for people I knew, imagining what they were doing. I missed them, of course, but in a strange way I felt closer to them through my thoughts and prayers than I do now when I can email anyone anywhere anytime.
I’m sure I felt lonely at times, but I don’t remember feeling that way, other than on those nightly walks when I passed a small restaurant or bar where men (always men) watched movies at night, most of them Kung Fu movies. It wasn’t that I wanted to watch the movies or even be with those men, but the interior was softly lit and looked like a warm, pleasant space to sit with a beer in hand. Alcohol was one of the things I gave up during my self-imposed isolation.
I had a Walkman with me and in the evening I’d often play one of the half-dozen cassette tapes I’d brought along. I had maybe a dozen books too, and I spent part of every evening reading. One book was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, which I had bought in an Athens bookstore for little more than a dollar. It was there, during that month of self-isolation that I read about and felt a strong attraction to the Merton friend I would eventually come to know and write a biography of: Robert Lax.
In addition to my cassettes and books, I had small packages of modeling clay and, though I’d never studied sculpting, I managed to form what looked like the face of an ancient Greek man and a bum sitting with his dog on a curb, reflective of a character in the novel I was writing. (I almost destroyed this last one by trying to “fire” it on the gas stove, rescuing it just in time, with only some singeing on the bottom.)
On my Sunday walks, if it wasn’t raining, I roamed farther and farther over the island, eventually choosing the wilder places where there was only a thin trail. At first I looked for the snakes I’d read warmed themselves on Greek island trails, but since it was never warm and I never saw wildlife of any kind except birds, I stopped looking.
One of my favorite places to go, rain or shine, was a huge rock connected by a narrow causeway to one of the beaches far from town. A small guidebook a man in a shop gave me said the caves carved into it had been used by monks living in stricter isolation centuries ago. By the time I started exploring the caves, the only signs of previous habitation were the smells and droppings of goats, but I did find a crude catchment tank for rain water at the top. What I liked most about the cave I usually sat in was that all I could see from it was the sea. Sitting there, although I had never had any instruction in playing it, I would sound out tunes on my harmonica: childhood songs, spirituals, and simple hymns.
When my mother’s birthday neared, I went around to all of my favorite places and recorded the sounds for her: the ocean rolling the beach pebbles, the goat-herder’s cry, the tinkle of goat bells, the thunder that shook my apartment when a big storm passed, and my halting, inept playing of “Happy Birthday” in that cave. Then I sent it off, hoping it would arrive in time.
When I had been on the island a month, it wasn’t the isolation but rather the cold that got to me. Somewhat miraculously, I’d finished a full draft of my novel by then. I decided to take the ferry back to Athens, check into a hotel with heat for a while, and send a copy of the novel home for safekeeping. I planned to visit some of the ancient sites as well: Corinth, Olympia, Delphi.
In those moments before I left the island, I felt as centered and open and peaceful as I ever had. It was then, as I waited for a ferry delayed by winter weather—as I thought about going back to my room and trying again the next night—that I heard a voice for the only time in my life. “If you will endure,” it said, sounding inside me, “God will bless you.”
Moments later, the delayed ferry appeared, and as I boarded it, I fell into conversation with an older man. It was during our brief interaction that I found out Robert Lax was living on the same island I was. This news seemed miraculous, of course. A revelation. A blessing. Born of the isolation I had dared to endure and the peace that had come to me through it.
(To read what happened when I met Robert Lax a few days later, see my book: Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, which includes the story of our friendship.)
I know exactly where I was 50 years ago tonight: at Camp Parsons, a summer camp run by the Boy Scouts on Hood Canal in Washington State. The night did not start out well. I was assigned KP duty for dinner, the duty no one wanted. I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday standing in the industrial-looking kitchen holding a large metal pot with mashed potato remains clinging to it. When I asked whoever was supervising me how I should clean it out, he grabbed my hand and thrust it into the cold, disgusting remains. I hated him instantly, of course, and that feeling hadn’t dissipated when I was finally released to go back to the tent I was staying in.
It was late by then and I was crossing the camp alone when I heard a loud cheer come out of one of the counselors’ cabins. The door was ajar and I inched that way to see what was happening. One of the counselors saw me and told me to come in—and there, on a small black-and-white television was the grainy image (shown here) of a man in a white space suit. It was Neil Armstrong, who had just taken his first step onto the moon. There, in the doorway to that cabin, while all of the other campers were sleeping or reading or playing around, the eleven-year-old me watched those first minutes men walked on the moon and heard their words about coming in peace.
I had been a huge space fan for years already. In addition to building a model of the Gemini capsule, I had checked out books at the library on the history of rockets and space flight. I’m sure I was terribly disappointed when I learned that I would be at camp, without a television, when the moon landing happened. But it all worked out. What could have been better, in fact, than walking out into that dark camp afterward, looking up at the moon without the lights of a city around me, and thinking: There are men up there, right now. Of course, the moon would never look quite the same after that—to me or to anyone else.
On Saturday, April 22, I’ll be leading a workshop called “Getting Down to the Truly Personal in Personal Essay and Memoir” at the 2017 Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville, Oregon. If you live in Oregon or SW Washington, I highly recommend this boutique writing festival. For just $50 ($60 after April 14), you get a full day of workshops and readings with many of Oregon’s finest writers. For more information or to register, click here: Terroir Creative Writing Festival.
I suppose I should admit that my “experiment” has been a failure. I set out to post one blog entry a week on memoir writing and one on writing about others during the months of April and May. I haven’t written about writing about others for two weeks and this week my Memoir Monday entry is two days late. As I often say to students, life trumps writing. Work, illness and family matters interfere with our best-laid plans.
Maybe it’s appropriate then that today’s entry is about both memoir writing and writing about others—or, more accurately, writing about others in memoir writing. This may be the least-discussed aspect of memoir writing. We teach budding memoirists to examine their lives, to separate the contemplating consciousness from that of their earlier self, to dare to go deeper into pain and shame, but we don’t talk enough about how they should think about writing about the others in their lives.
In many memoirs, family members and others who have had relationships with the writer end up as collateral damage. Parents bear the brunt of the character blows. Sometimes they are the heroes of memoirs but more often they are the villains. They are portrayed as drunk or drug-addled, abusive or negligent. Some are psychotic, some autocratic, and some narcissistic in the extreme. The scars left by their behaviors are real and, judging by what many memoirists have written, they are life-altering, character-warping, ineradicable even with therapy.
But memoir writing can inflict damage and leave scars too. This coming week my Memoir Writing students will read essays from a book called Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. Some of the essays make clear how wounding words and stories can be. Others talk about the usefulness of letting family members read what has been written about them in advance of publication. All of them, in one way or another, raise the questions What do we owe the people we write about when seeking to write our own stories? and How can we make sure we’re being fair to others as well as ourselves?
There are no easy answers, of course. But the book my students read this last week, John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, suggests some approaches. Wideman’s book looks at the differences and similarities between himself, a widely respected writer and professor, and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence for his participation in a robbery in which a man was killed. The book is, in essence, a biography as well as a memoir, and the sections on Robby are based on interviews Wideman did with his brother. But Wideman goes to great lengths to show that he bears sole responsibility for what the book says.
In his Author’s Note, Wideman tells us his book is a “mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.” Because he wasn’t able to use a tape recorder during his prison visits, he had only inadequate notes from his conversations with his brother. He used those notes in conjunction with his lifelong knowledge of Robby, their family, their neighborhood, and the societal conditions at play in the lives of young American black men to write from Robby’s perspective, giving Robby a voice in the book. The voice in these sections is a voice of the streets, using slang and informal patterns of speech. Wideman makes it clear to his readers that he has constructed this voice but tells us, too, that Robby has read and approved and, at times, corrected it. You might call it a collaborative voice, one writer’s attempt to write about someone else while giving that person the opportunity to make sure the depiction of him reflects his own understanding.
Even then, Wideman is careful to tell us that his picture of Robby (which he uses as a mirror to reflect an essential part of his own nature) is his picture—limited and fragmentary, warped by his own partial view and understanding. “There will necessarily be distance,” he writes, “vast discrepancy between any image I create and the mystery of all my brother is, was, can be.”
It is this mystery every memoir writer needs to keep in mind when writing about anyone, even herself. We know people only partially and our views are distorted by our own needs, desires, emotions and experiences. If we respect the mystery of others—all that we don’t know about their inner and outer lives—and try, in the process of examining our own lives, to see from their perspectives, we have a better chance of being fair to them on the page.
We need to remember, too, that including them in our story means using them and their stories for our own purposes. “Though I never intended to steal his story,” Wideman writes, “to appropriate it or exploit it, in a sense that’s what would happen once the book was published.”
“Don’t I have a right to tell my story?” someone will ask. “Of course you do” is the only appropriate response. But rarely are our stories ours alone. Each of us lives at the center of a vast web of associations and relationships, families and communities. Every movement we make reverberates down the web’s delicate filaments, risking rifts and detachments and damage we can’t even see. We need to move carefully and respectfully, weighing the possible ramifications—on ourselves as well as others—of everything we say and do.
A few years ago, one of the external evaluators who supported my promotion to full professor wrote that I was among those rare writers who look inside as well as out. Most writers, he said, focus exclusively on personal writing or on writing about the world beyond them. I didn’t think much about his statement until I decided to add parts of my personal story to Pure Act, my biography of poet Robert Lax. I did so for three good reasons: My personal connection to Lax gave readers who had never heard of him a reason to care about him; I could use scenes from our times together to bring him more vividly to life; and it seemed false to write from a distance about a man who had greatly influenced my life.
I knew some traditionalists would call this decision a mistake, but artificial boundaries between personal observation and supposedly objective research strike me as silly and generally false. Even a piece of writing based primarily on research is saturated with the writer’s personal viewpoint. It is the writer alone who decides what subject to write about, what material to include or exclude, and what tone and approach to use. The personal is always there, whether we recognize it or not. Fortunately, as our thinking about narrative nonfiction has evolved, more and more writers are loosening up—showing their work, so to speak, by making their methods of fact collection and even their preferences and biases clear.
With the biography birthed and the initial publicity done, I’ve begun two new projects that have me thinking again about looking inward and outward at the same time. One is a memoir about a year my wife and I spent on an island off the coast of Washington State. The other is a book about writing about others. Am I Janus-faced enough, I wonder, to work on these two books at the same time? And if I can, what might my efforts reveal about the similarities and differences between these two types of writing?
In some writing circles, primarily in Britain, biographical and autobiographical writing are grouped together under the title Life Writing. Having written short pieces of memoir as well as biography, this grouping strikes me as overly baggy. Yet there can be no doubt that writing about yourself is akin in some ways to writing about another. In writing a memoir, for instance, you must be able to see yourself as a character, and in writing about someone else you must establish an empathetic connection. In both cases, you need to create a world around your subject and bring that subject to life.
In order to explore these connections further, I’m embarking on an experiment: For the next two months, I plan to post two entries a week on this site, one on memoir and one on writing about others. Since I’m teaching memoir writing this term, some of the memoir material will come from class preparations and discussions, and some of the material on writing about others will come from classes I’ve taught on that subject. But my intention is to be more speculative and contemplative than academic or, God forbid, didactic. I want to think on the page about what I’m discovering and share it with anyone interested.
Generally, the first entry each week will be devoted to memoir and I’ll write it on Monday, so let’s call this the first Memoir Monday. That having been said, this introductory entry is quite long already, so instead of deep contemplation, I’ll leave you with just a few memoir thoughts. These are drawn mostly from comments made at the annual Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference I attended over the weekend.
- In an AWP panel on memoir, Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, said that a memoirist needs to “let the bottom fall out,” writing “into the deepest truth,” the one you didn’t know until you started writing. “We go into the darkness,” she said, “we go through the darkness, and we come out of the darkness changed.”
- Another panel member said that a memoirist is the protagonist in her story but not the hero. This comment deserves more musing, of course, but in the interest of brevity I’ll say only that the panel member was calling for a true examination of one’s self—one that goes beyond and below self-glorification, self-centeredness, and even self-doubt. In her new book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “Once the reader identifies a vain or self-serving streak the writer can’t admit to with candor, a level of distrust interferes with that reader’s experience.”
- Memory studies have shown that the least-durable type of long-term memory is factual memory and the most-durable type is episodic memory, which is primarily scene-based memory with a personal component, the kind of memory most conducive to memoir writing.
- And finally, a quote from poet Marie Louise Kaschnitz especially applicable to memoir writing:
You cannot write
To save your soul.
Given up, it drifts and does the singing.
And so the experiment begins…
After over 30 readings and other appearances over the past few months, I’m down to my last scheduled talk. It will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, in room 333, Smith Memorial Union, on the Portland State University campus. If you live in the Portland area, please join us. To mark the occasion, we’ll have copies of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax available at a discounted price.
A big thank you to those who came to last week’s readings in the Bay Area, where a standing-room-only crowd listened to poet John Beer, author S. T. Georgiou and me talk about our friendship with Robert Lax at City Lights Books in San Francisco, and another good crowd heard me read from Pure Act at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.
Among those in attendance at City Lights were Gerald Nicosia, one of Jack Kerouac’s biographers, and Mike Antonucci, a Bay Area journalist who is the nephew of Lax’s first publisher and close friend, Emil Antonucci. It was fun for me to read a passage from my book about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a space where their spirits lingered.
My readings around the country have kept me from writing as much on this blog as I would have liked, and now that they’re over, I hope to write more. Starting some time in March, I plan to try a unique experiment. I’ll be teaching two courses in memoir writing while working on a memoir of my own AND a book on writing about other people. I’m planning to make two posts a week from my research and thinking, one on memoir and one on writing about others (biography). It will be interesting to contemplate how these two types of writing, one looking inward and the other outward, parallel and diverge.