I thought it was going to be behind a paywall, but the WC editors have made it available to anyone. Here’s an excerpt:
One of the trickiest things to do is balance what you feel is true after all of your research with fidelity to what you actually know. Given that a biography is usually based on years of research and a memoir on years of knowing the people around you, it is easy to believe you know what your subject’s perspective on something would be even if she never stated it. The danger in this is we never truly know what a person might have thought or felt. People surprise us all the time. We even surprise ourselves.
For many years, Sylvia and I have been spending part of each summer in the San Juan Islands, on land her parents bought back in the 1960s. We just returned from our latest sojourn there. The land contains two small cabins, one of which began as her family’s tent platform and I use now as a writing studio, which sounds much loftier than the space deserves.
The cabin land is what they call high-bank waterfront, which means there’s a beach below but it’s a long ways down. The cabins are nestled into a forest of mostly Douglas-firs and grand firs, with a sprinkling of lodgepole pine, hemlock, and alder. There are other cabins nearby, but only one that is close and it is generally vacant except in the summer.
When we’re on the island, we live a simple life close to nature, with eagles, kingfishers, and Great Blue herons winging by, seals and otters splashing in the waves, and deer grazing on the oceanspray. Although there is a village on the island, we rarely go there. When we do, it feels as if we’re reentering civilization. But of course we use the internet to stay connected from the cabins.
I mention all of this now because I recently completed a memoir about the time Sylvia and I spent a full year up there, during a sabbatical from teaching at Portland State University.
It was a tumultuous year during which my mother died, Sylvia’s mother faded into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and we faced a series of hardships on and off the island. It was also a transformative year, in which the hardships themselves gave me new vision and strength.
I’m in the process of looking for a publisher for the book now and thinking I might post short selections from it in the weeks ahead, as well as some of the pictures I’ve taken of island life.
For now, here are a couple more shots from this summer:
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
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
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,
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.
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.
When you write about other people, you make ethical decisions from beginning to end. Here’s a starter kit for making those decisions, in the form of questions to ask at each step along the way:
Choosing a subject: Why does this subject appeal to you? Is it someone you can approach fairly and open-mindedly? Do you have a bias already for or against the subject? If you know the person, are you able to get enough distance from her to go beyond your own preconceived notions of her? Are you able to be objective even if you find information that counters or even destroys your image of the person? Are you willing to disclose your bias for or against in some way to your reader?
Collecting facts: Do you have access to enough material to feel comfortable creating an image of your subject for an audience? If not, how might you mitigate this problem by the use of other contextual material? Do you have enough time and other resources (money, ability to travel to archives, contacts, etc.) to do a thorough job? Are you open to whatever material you find? Are you willing to keep researching, especially interviewing, even when your interest in your subject has flagged? What are you willing to do to secure potentially important material in the hands of someone skeptical of your project?
Interviewing: How will you select those you interview about your subject? How thorough are you willing to be? Will you include people who might have a view of that person different than yours? What are you willing to do to convince skeptical interviewees to talk to you? How far are you willing to go with flattery or intimations of friendship? Can you be honest with interviewees about your views of your subject? Are you willing to prepare thoroughly for all interviews? How will you differentiate between interview material that comes from someone you like or agree with vs. someone you don’t like or whose opinion might conflict with yours?
Gaps: How will you deal with the inevitable gaps in the story you find? Are you willing to delay moving to publication to try to find more material? Will you disclose them to your reader or try to elide them? Are you willing to be more provisional in your writing or do you feel the need to write with total conviction? How comfortable are you with using your imagination to fill some gaps? How do you decide when you have truly made a good-faith effort to fill gaps? Are you willing to abandon the project if you encounter too many gaps?
Choosing themes: How will you ensure that the themes you choose are truly demonstrable from your subject’s life? If you have a theme in mind when you start, are you flexible enough to let it go or even have it upended? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into your themes or even counters them? How will you make sure your themes aren’t too restrictive or prescriptive? How will you determine whether your themes are fair and not the result of trendy ideas or what you think will sell?
Creating a narrative: Are you able to establish and sustain a narrative that is capacious enough to encompass all of your research? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into story form or the sequence of stories you want to tell? How can you ensure that the pictures you create on the page comes from facts only and don’t distort the subject’s viewpoint or experience if they come from sources outside his life? How will you use stories or juicy material that comes from a single source, particularly if that source is questionable? How will you convey to your reader what sources you’ve used to construct your narrative (in-text clues, endnotes, bibliography, etc.)?
Making claims: How can you keep potentially controversial claims from being libelous? Is everything you claim about your subject based on thorough research? How will you decided what to do with material that might seem an invasion of privacy but seems important to the claims you’re making about your subject? Are you willing to be less-definitive in your claims to indicate to your reader that the claims are provisional or based on thin evidence? Have you had enough people of different viewpoints read your work to be sure your claims are broadly valid? Are your claims based on more than a single source? Are you able to get outside your own social and cultural context and evaluate your claims from a different viewpoint?
Fact checking: Have you asked those with knowledge of particular facts to read them in the context of your work? Have you had enough people read your manuscript to catch errors you might have stopped seeing? Have you checked out questionable “facts” with other sources? Have you been honest in evaluating your sources? Have you double-checked later versions of your manuscript against original sources? Have you been thorough in matching what interviewees tell you against all possible written sources (letters, diaries, official documents, published works, etc.)?
Revision and editing: Have you made sure you haven’t introduced errors by taking things out or adding things in? In making your writing more concise or trying to fit a word count, have you been careful not to be reductive or create an unintended connection through juxtapositioning? Have you been careful not to introduce gaps that weren’t there before? Have you absolutely, thoroughly and repeatedly checked and rechecked every name, place and other type of information that identifies any individual? Have you checked the work of editors and proofreaders yourself?
Publication: Have you thought about the effects of publication on your subject and yourself? How will you deal with the inevitable errors others will find in the published work? What responsibility do you have to the work after it’s out in the world? How will you deal with information that comes to you after the book or article is published? Will your writing about your subject end with publication or will you continue to write, speak and blog about her? How will you deal with the inevitable critics of your work—your researching, your interpretations, your claims, your writing or your integrity?
Again, this list is meant only to get you thinking about the many ethical decisions you’ll have to make along the way, with the hope that you’ll make them consciously and well.
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.
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.
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.