Memoir Monday #7 — The Dance of Expectations and Fear: Missing the True Story

My thoughts today are less about memoir per se than storytelling in general and what is often called “writer’s block” in particular.  As with my last entry, they come from something John Edgar Wideman wrote in his deeply searching and searing memoir Brothers and Keepers.  Near the book’s end, Wideman talks about showing the first draft of his book to Robby, the imprisoned brother whose story lies at its heart.  Robby tells him that “something crucial” is missing from it.

In seeking the source of the problem, Wideman decides that his expectations and fear kept him from getting down to the true story.  “By the book’s conclusion I wanted a whole, rounded portrait of my brother,” he writes, but “no apotheosis of Robby’s character could occur in the final section because none had transpired in my dealings with my brother.”

In other words, Wideman’s expectations of what the story would be, and his ideas of what a story is, were keeping him from seeing what his brother’s life had to tell him.  “I’d been waiting to record dramatic, external changes in Robby’s circumstances when what I should have been attuned to were the inner changes, his slow, internal adjustment day by day to an unbearable situation.”

Wideman’s use of the word “unbearable” at this point links Robby’s life to that of their mother, who used it to describe daily life as an African American.  “Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne,” Wideman writes about his mother’s understanding of the word, “but what must be endured forever.”  Wideman’s late recognition that the real story is Robby’s “internal adjustment” to “an unbearable situation” allows him to link Robby’s plight to those of his ancestors, including his mother, and of African Americans throughout history.  By listening more carefully and homing in on smaller, more intimate details, he gives his story universality.

But it is what Wideman writes on the following page that speaks more generally to writers, especially those who find themselves scared to write:

“The problem with the first draft was my fear.  I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough.  I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights.  I wanted to clean them up.  Manufacture compelling before-and-after images.  Which meant I made the bad too bad and good too good.  I knew what I wanted; so, for fear I might not get what I needed, I didn’t listen carefully, probe deeply enough.”

The last sentence here is particularly useful.  It is our idea of what we want that gets in the way, that makes us afraid the outcome won’t be good enough.  We’re thinking about the end product when we should be thinking about the process.  “The best is the enemy of the good,” Thomas Merton used to say.  Our desire to be praised for what we produce keeps us from listening carefully to our sources or ourselves, from probing deeply enough to see what is truly there rather than what fits more easily into our preconceived notions.

“Lower your sights,” writing teachers often say to students who face writer’s block.  A better thing to say might be “Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”  Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves.  The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us, trusting that truth, however provisional, will sparkle with a beauty all its own.

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 #6 — What Do We Owe the People We Write About When We Write Our Own Stories?

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.

Memoir Monday #5 — What Form Does Memory Take?

I’m thinking today about forms in memoir writing, both the forms our memories take and the forms we use to present them to readers.  It seems that true memories come mostly in fragments—an image, a snippet of conversation, maybe a sequence of actions leading to what, in retrospect, seems a significant moment.  That’s how memories come to us the first time, anyway—when a smell reminds us of a childhood moment, for example, or a sound takes us back to somewhere we’ve traveled.  When we go back to those memories, though, they start to change.  I read once that once we remember something one time, every subsequent memory is only a memory of the memory before.

What happens, I think, is that once we become conscious of a memory, we start to examine it for meaning.  We zero in on one or two elements, invest it with a deeper emotion then it came to us with or, if it seems important, turn it into an anecdote or even a full story.  It seems to be true that if you sit quietly with a memory, maybe start writing about it, you can remember many more details than you did at first.  As your mind brings these details forward, though, it looks for connections between them, patterns, significance.

The question arises then: What happens to these memories once they’re brought to full consciousness?  Are they really memories?  Can we trust them?  And if we want to write about them, how do we do so honestly?  What form can we use to convey them as accurately as possible?

My favorite memoir is Childhood by the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute.  I like it because Sarraute’s approach to “evoking” her childhood memories, as she calls it, is to put two voices on the page.  The voices are obviously constructs and just as obviously two parts of her own mind.  The first voice is the main presenter of memories.  The second voice challenges the first, questioning whether the memories it presents are actual memories rather than something heard from someone else, forcing it to go deeper into difficult memories, and keeping it honest when it tries to turn an incomplete or less-coherent memory into a polished story.

Sarraute’s book is as much about how we remember our lives and what we tend to do with the memories once they come as it is about her own childhood.  Among other things, she looks at where images or sayings that live in her mind originated and questions the views of situations and people (including their motives) she has long clung to.  She seems to be saying, “I’m a mature woman now.  I can look honestly at those early pains and influences I’ve kept at arm’s length or concocted a safe story for.”

One important determinant of what form memory takes in a memoir is how much the memoirist chooses to externalize the memory.  Many memoirs are written as scene-scene-scene-scene, like traditional novels.  Each scene is carefully composed, with all of the elements necessary to make it a scene: characters, setting, plot, dialogue.  This is the way memory is usually presented in mainstream movies: Suddenly we are watching a scene in the past, not from the limited view of the character remembering but in full, with a full set of scenic details the character couldn’t possibly have remembered.

This movie approach is a convention, and many memoirs are written just as conventionally.  We accept the scenes and the details in them because they engage us, drawing us into the narrator’s world.  They conform, too, to how we expect stories to be told.  We don’t think much about the mind of the person remembering; we simply live the stories being told, seeing and hearing and smelling the sensory details.

What Sarraute and other memoirists do, however, is take us more fully into the mind of the author.  Rather than encouraging us to get lost in the story—to suspend disbelief—they focus on their minds at work: the conscious turning over and questioning of memories, the searching for meaning, the provisional constructing and even destructing of stories and images.  The scenes and half-scenes they present can be just as vivid and evocative, but they don’t pretend that the sensory details they offer are necessarily accurate.

In any piece of personal writing that involves memory, there are two consciousnesses at work.  One is the consciousness of the younger self in the moment of action or decision or even earlier contemplation.  The other is the consciousness of the present, of the author as she’s writing about that earlier version of herself.  In my classes I speak of this present consciousness as being thinner or thicker on the page.  If it’s thinner, the story is generally more externalized, more scene-based, more story-like.  If it’s thicker, the reader is more aware of being inside the mind of the author, where meaning-making and questioning take place.

This is a continuum rather than an either/or choice.  Every memoir falls somewhere along it.  Perceptive readers of memoir look for signs on the first few pages that indicate where this particular memoir stands on the continuum and read what follows accordingly.  For, in writing memoir, we aren’t putting pristine, clinical memories on the page.  We’re evoking a past, exploring self-creation, and searching for meaning in the life we’ve lived.

Memoir Monday #4 — Are You Just Making This Stuff Up?

Readers often wonder if a memoirist is just making things up.  Sometimes they ask this question out loud at author appearances.  More often they ask it silently while reading a section that seems too fantastic or perfect to be true.  Some readers grow uncomfortable when anything strikes them as beyond what a writer could have remembered, while others, maybe most, simply assume that memoir is like an autobiographical novel.  Those in this second category don’t worry about whether any of what they’re reading is actually true as long as it seems emotionally true or true to their own understanding of life.

Some memoirists view memoir in this second way too.  And they have reason.  If memoir is based mostly on what a person remembers, and study after study has shown that our memories are terribly inaccurate, why not simply give into reality and compose a finely crafted piece of art from the building blocks of your life?  After all, as soon as you begin to shape anything, it no longer conforms to life as it was lived anyway.  Every crafting of scene or sentence, even every word choice, involves leaving something out.  Memoirist and even journalists choose to focus on this rather than that, to emphasize this theme or viewpoint rather than that one.  What difference does it make if everything isn’t technically accurate?

My thinking has gone down this road this week because the book my classes are reading is Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth.  The scenes in Beard’s book often contain details from early in her life that even a video of those moments wouldn’t have recorded in such detail.  And she often pairs her memories with the details of what is happening in a related but different realm.  For example, in one story she describes the movements of corn and a deer that she and her cousin will pass in a car at night, in the moments before the passing happens—movements she couldn’t possibly have witnessed.  In another story she intersperses her own actions during a particular day with those of a coyote, which, again, will only cross her path.

This second example seems a more egregious transgression than the first—even if you believe that memoir is always based on faulty memory—because Beard follows the coyote through its solitary wanderings, goes inside its head, and says at one point that it is “in a good mood”!  What, you might justifiably ask, is going on here?

In truth, it’s easier for me to defend what Beard is doing with the coyote than the seemingly accurate personal details she lays down in such number and fineness elsewhere.  With the coyote, she is clearly imagining his world, no doubt from careful research, and using it to create a metaphoric comparison to her own wanderings and instincts.  If a reader has no taste for any kind of fictionalization in nonfiction, even this might be unforgivable.  But memoir writing is an art, a written art, and metaphor, analogy, comparison and contrast are long-standing elements in effective nonfiction writing.  Beard’s imaginings of the coyote’s activities and world are obviously imaginings; they reflect not the coyote’s actual life but, through elaborate analogy, how she views her younger self while writing the memoir.

In her book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes: “Truth may have become a foggy fuzzy nether area.  But untruth is simple: making up events with the intent to deceive.”  She goes on to say, “Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences off the memoirist from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty….A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is.”

We get no feeling in Beard’s work that she is trying to forge “false tales” or pump herself up for her audience.  The impression we get, in fact, is that she is trying to find whatever way she can to convey how she felt in an earlier moment in her life, and how she sees that moment now.  She trusts that her reader is able to discern where she has gone beyond strict memory—using details from a more general memory of habitual action to flesh out a scene, for example, or creating a contrast between a scavenging animal in a natural world and her own natural hunger while separated from nature by cars and bars and other human trappings.

There is much more to say here, and other questions to ask—about the use of made-up dialogue, for example, or the re-creation of scenes one didn’t witness—but I can cover only so much in one posting.


Ann Curry, Susan Orlean and a Dry Martini: The Interview as Conversation — Writing About Others #3

I’m thinking today about interviewing.  The first person I ever interviewed as a journalist was the principal of my high school, who moonlighted as a referee for what was then Pac-8 football and had been selected to officiate in the upcoming Rose Bowl game, a singular honor.  I was just a scared little student but he treated me with respect, answering all of my questions with patience.  I suppose I learned two things that day: that journalism opens doors, and that interviewing is mostly about two people talking.

I learned the principles of interviewing from my favorite professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, Ken Metzler, who wrote a book called Creative Interviewing.  Metzler liked to tell a story about Ann Curry, the former host of NBC’s “Today” show, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Curry, Metzler said, went to interview a prominent woman while still in school and was dissatisfied with how the conversation was going so she suggested they go to a nearby coffee shop to talk more.  There, while gesturing, Curry spilled her coffee.  “Mortified,” Metzler writes in his book, “she thought she had blown the interview.  But, to her astonishment, the woman began talking more candidly.”

What Curry discovered that day, I discovered later: that interviewing usually goes best when the pressure of doing an interview is gone.  To put people at ease, I’ve interviewed them while jogging, walking through a museum, building a theater set, and inspecting a building site.  This kind of casual interviewing is one of the keys to New Yorker profile writer Susan Orlean’s success.  She starts her research of a profile subject by simply hanging around, asking the questions that arise naturally and letting what happens determine the direction of the conversation.

In his otherwise interesting and entertaining book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller states that “an interview is not a conversation” because it has a purpose: to elicit information.  Yet his definition of conversation—a witty exchange that happens naturally, giving pleasure to all involved—is certainly possible in interviewing.  The best interviews I’ve done have come from being prepared, of course, but also from being willing to indulge in an exchange of ideas, personal disclosure and even prolonged asides.  My subject will surely say more than me and I’ll make sure I ask the important questions, but our interaction will be as close as possible to the conversation of friends or maybe strangers who meet in an intimate environment.

Good reporting—and, in the end, good writing—comes from recognizing that interviewing and every other aspect of writing about other people is a human activity.  This point was driven home to me one night in Manhattan when I’d gone to interview an old friend of my book’s subject, Robert Lax.  I’d mistaken the location of the man’s address, thinking it was close to one subway stop and discovering only after I’d gone there that it was somewhere else.  To get to the right location, I had to walk through rain that became a downpour.  When I arrived, late and drenched, the man took one look at me and asked if I needed a martini.

Martinis in hand, we sat in his comfortable living room and I took out my recorder.  He was as kind and solicitous as he could be, but when I asked my first question, he said he didn’t remember.  I tried another and got the same response.  When he shook his head at the third one, perplexed and sorry, I realized that he had simply grown too old to remember things that happened so long ago.

He was a delightful man, however, so I put my pad and recorder away and just enjoyed the experience: the dryness of the apartment, the martini and his still-lively wit.  One of the things we talked about was his love of dance, and when I got up to go, he said the next time I came to New York we’d have to go dancing together.  I still think of that evening as one of my best interviews ever.

Memoir Monday #3 — What Myths Do You Live By?

I’m fascinated by the idea of the Living Myth.  I don’t mean ancient tales about warring gods or talking animals, but the stories we live by that help us make sense of the world.  In this context, myths can be true, untrue or half-true.  It doesn’t matter, because they are true to us.  Some we follow consciously and some unconsciously.  Either way, they play a large role in determining who we are.  And therefore it’s important for memoirists and writers about others to recognize them.

For example, in Kim Barnes’ excellent memoir In the Wilderness, which my memoir writing classes discussed last week, her family is guided by their belief that the Idaho wilderness is an Eden of plenty.  This belief—this myth—determines many of their decisions and even how they view themselves after their move to a city.

In this week’s class, we’re discussing Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, which looks at myth more directly.  Momaday divides the book into three sections: 1. mythological stories of the Kiowa people, 2. historical information about the Kiowas, and 3. his own observations about his family, his people and the land they lived on.  Only the third section is clearly memoir, yet all three sections help the reader see who Momaday understands himself to be.  Perhaps as a nod to the blurring of the lines between the three ways of seeing himself, as the book goes on Momaday moves the mythological section out of obvious myth and into the realm of more recent stories while using more mythological-style language in his personal observations.

A Living Myth can be societal, familial or personal.  In this presidential election season, we’re seeing all kinds of societal myths being bandied about.  Political parties and candidates swear by them, latching on to those that have proven successful in motivating people and trying to shape new ones.  The media are great societal myth creators and perpetuators.

I’m less interested in societal myths, though, than familial and personal ones.  My students’ assignment this week is to describe a story their family tells about itself.  I’ve asked them to talk about what the story tells the family about itself and what it tells them about themselves individually.  When we come into this world, we don’t enter a virgin stream but rather slip into a river that has been flowing for generations.  It is alive already with myths and tropes and beliefs.  As we grow we ingest them, react to them and, if we’re self-aware enough, examine them to determine whether we want to embrace them in adulthood.

Beyond these familial myths, however, are personal ones that have an even greater hold on us.  We turn the origin stories of these myths into nuggets we polish and repeat over time to ourselves.  These often become our so-called “chestnuts,” the often-embellished stories we tell at parties, but there are many more that we never speak of except to ourselves.  They tell us we’re shy because we feared speaking up in grade school or we’re always spurned by others because we weren’t picked for a team sport in high school or we’re clever rather than book-smart because we have succeeded despite poor school grades.

Identifying these myths—which can come from religion, politics, place of origin (think of how many myths there are about being from the South), tragedy, success and any number of other sources—is crucial to understanding oneself or others when writing about them.  They are lights we navigate by and it’s hard as hell to change them, even when we recognize them.  That’s why political discourse keeps falling into the same old ruts, and we keep falling back on old patterns.

Some of what I’m calling myths are, of course, sources of wisdom.  Some allow us to navigate our world successfully.  Some are vital to staying alive.  And they can provide a great deal of comfort as we seek to make our way in life.

For it’s the completely new, for which we have no myths to guide us, that can truly frighten us—or, if we’re receptive and self-aware, excite us and open new vistas before us.


We Want the Omelette: Writing About Others #2

This morning I was looking at a book by Ira Bruce Nadel called Biography: Fiction, Fact & Form, published in the mid-1980s, when a number of books about writing biography appeared, perhaps because Leon Edel, the influential biographer of William James, had published a book called The Poetics of Biography in 1977.  I’ve only dipped into Nadel’s book but I like what I’ve read so far.  Early on, he writes: “The need to understand the literary techniques and strategies of biography parallels its emergence today as perhaps the most popular, widely-read body of non-fiction writing.”  His three epigraphs foreshadow his belief that biography is an art and should be more seriously studied as such:

“Facts related to the past, when they are collected without art, are compilations; and compilations no doubt may be useful; but they are no more History than butter, eggs, salt and herbs are an omelette.”   —Lytton Strachey

“Nothing happens while you live.  The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all.  There are no beginnings…But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories.  As if there could possible be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.”   —Jean-Paul Sartre

“The biographer, after all, is as much of a storyteller as the novelist or historian.”  —Leon Edel

The art of biography lies in the interpretation of the facts discovered, Nadel says, and also in the choice of form and language.  “No biographer merely records a life,” he writes.  “Every biographer, no matter how objective he declares himself, interprets a life.”  And as soon as a writer “becomes conscious of language, conscious of how it alters what he describes from a factual representation to an independent verbal object, he transforms his craft into an art.”

When I teach profile writing, I always tell my students that the profile they write is not the one true story to be told about their subject but rather a description of an encounter.  Preparation and interpretation are part of what results, but so are the writer’s interests and knowledge, facility with words and mastery of tone and metaphor.  There’s even a huge dose of randomness: we learn one fact but not another, we interview our subject on a day she’s feeling well or ill, a friend will talk to us but not a family member.  In the end, we make the best sense we can of what we have.

As Nadel says, narrative is central to how we write about others, and narrative has “properties other than that of recording events.”  There is voice in narrative and point of view, a sense, however muted, of the narrator’s perspective, personality and understanding.  The corrective to this (if one is needed) should be a more explicit laying out of bias and approach rather than the faux-objective voice and stance so many profile writers and biographers adopt.

“Those who accept language as a transparent medium of representation and believe that if they only use the right word for describing an event the meaning will be clear, illustrate an inadequate sense of the creative nature of language and its role in biography,” Nadel writes.  “Such empiricists, who place their faith in language for conveying fact, write biographies of maximum detail and minimal interpretation, believing the latter to be the function of some other form of composition.  But the principal interest in biography, the reason for its popularity with authors as well as readers, remains its ability to provide meaning for an individual’s life, transmitting personality and character through prose.”

In other words, we want the omelette.  And to get it, we need writers who know how to cook.

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.

Do You Have the Right to Write About Her?

I’ve committed myself to posting one entry a week on memoir and one on writing about others for the next two months.  Although I’ll be reading books about both subjects during that time, my plan is to concentrate on my own thoughts.  I want to see what I can puzzle out.  What questions come.  I’m hoping to find intersections and exclusions: thoughts about one that are applicable to the other, and thoughts that aren’t.

My first entry each week, appearing on Monday (I hope), will be about memoir, and I’ve already made that entry this week.  So here I’ll concentrate on writing about others.  I want to start with something memoir-related, however: writing about family.  This is the place where memoir and writing about others most often intersect.  Virtually every memoir about childhood paints a picture of one or more parents in some way, and many paint profiles of siblings too.

In my classes on personal writing, I always tell my students, “Be careful about bringing parents into your writing.  They have a tendency to take over.”  This warning comes from experience–from seeing a brief mention of a father in a personal essay, for example, prompt a class full of readers and would-be critics to beg or even demand to learn more.  Maybe we’re all just Freudian after all, believing that childhood experiences and relationships determine who we become.  It seems more likely, though, that writing about parents is simply more highly charged than writing about anyone else.  And once a reader feels that emotional charge, she hungers for more.

Most books that deal with writing about others focus primarily on biographies of people already dead.  They talk about going to archives and interviewing survivors.  They discuss the need to interpret a writer’s thoughts based on her works or a politician’s values based on his actions.  They recommend researching and recreating the times in which your subject lived.  And some, if they’re good ones, talk about how to bring your subject to life on the page.  What they don’t discuss is how to think and write about someone with whom you’ve had an actual encounter.

The thing is, it’s easy to form opinions and settle on themes when you’re writing about someone you’ve had no relation to.  You can treat that person as history, a collection of facts and writings and relationships with other dead people. But what if you’ve seen a person alive? What if you’ve witnessed his or her actions and words over time?  What if that person had a great influence on your own life, for better or ill?  How do you separate your own strong feelings from what someone else might call “the facts”?  In the case of a parent, how do you distinguish your own development from the independent changes that person might have been going through at the same time?

I struggled with most of these questions while writing my biography Pure Act, in which I was writing about a man I loved who taught me much.  They loom even larger as I embark on a memoir in which my mother’s life and death play a significant role.  To some degree, they are questions of fairness, and they aren’t asked often enough about memoir or about writing about others, whether that writing be profiles or even biographies of the dead.

As I write these entries over the next two months, I expect this question of giving others a voice in the telling of their own stories to regularly pop up, along with an even larger question: In this age when every form of supposed appropriation is suspect, do we have the right to tell another person’s story at all?