The Ethics of Writing About Others

A page from the Ross family album, memorializing the death of J. D. Ross, the subject of my next biography.

I haven’t been publishing a lot lately, but a piece I wrote called “The Ethics of Writing About Others” just appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.

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.

You can read the full essay here.

A Year in the Woods

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.

Podcast Interview: Talking about Memoir, Biography and the Craft of Nonfiction

A few weeks ago, I stopped by Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird Studio to talk to her class about memoir, biography and writing in general.  She recorded the session and it’s available free on her website.  Have a listen.

Jennifer is the author of the bestselling memoir Blackbird and three other books.  You’ll find more about her and her books on her Amazon author’s page.

If you live in the Portland area, check out Jennifer’s classes for writers.

Here’s an Exercise from my Terroir Writing Festival Workshop on Personal Essay and Memoir

The featured image here is of poet Lynn Otto introducing me for my workshop “Getting Down to the Truly Personal in Personal Essay and Memoir” at the 8th annual Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville, Oregon, last Saturday.  McMinnville is at the heart of Oregon’s wine country and home to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, which is where Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose resides now.

The conference had 120 attendees and close to half of them squeezed into the small room where my workshop was held, with some spilling out the door.  The tight quarters made for good energy and the writing was furious during the three exercises I was able to offer in the hour I had.  Judging by the comments afterward, the exercises took people to the deeper places I hoped they’d go, some emerging with tears in their eyes and others saying they found their way with projects that had been stalled.

Below is one of the exercises we did, based on this paragraph from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Blindness”:

“A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end.  This is even stronger in the case of an artist.  Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art.  One must accept it.  For this reason, I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord.  Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”

WRITING: Think of an “instrument” that is an inescapable element of your experience of life—asthma, blindness, migraines, single parent, poverty—something that has marked you in ways that might seem damaging or at least disadvantageous.  Write a long paragraph about it and your connection to it.


A Workshop on Personal Writing at the 2017 Terroir Creative Writing Festival on Saturday, April 22

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.

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.


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.

Writing About One’s Self and Others: Embarking on an Experiment

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.

  1. 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.”
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.
  1. 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…

Last Portland PURE ACT Reading at 6:30 p.m. This Tuesday, February 23…and Future Plans

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.

The Next Book: A Year in the Woods in the San Juan Islands

In 2006, Sylvia and I decided to spend my first sabbatical on a triangle of waterfront land her parents had purchased in the 1960s.  The land lay on the south end of Lopez Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State.  It had two small cabins on it, neither of which had ever been lived in for more than a few summer weeks.  There were other cabins and even houses nearby, but almost no one stayed on or even visited that part of the island in the off-season.  (When we told one permanent resident that we would be staying through the winter, he said, “Now there will be three lights on the bay.”  It’s a BIG bay.)  Our plan was that we would sleep (and Sylvia would work) in the larger cabin (about 600 square feet) and I would do my writing in the smaller one (maybe 400 sq. ft.),  a former tent platform that had been walled in.

We moved up in June with high hopes and clear intentions, but almost as soon as we had settled in, things took an unexpected turn.  We learned the truth in John Lennon’s words, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I’ve started writing a memoir based on journal entries I made during that sabbatical year: a recording of life as it happened to us despite our well-intentioned plans.  Over the next weeks and maybe months, I plan to post short excerpts from those journal entries as I work on my book.  To kick things off, here’s a portion of the first entry I made on the island that year, on July 24:

“We are up here for good at last, and it is a gorgeous day.  No clouds, just sun on slightly ruffled water.  The air is still, the only sounds the cries of seagulls and the putt-putt-putt of a single boat.  My allergies lie dormant.  I slept amazingly well.  For half an hour before getting up I lay half-awake in a blissful state.  I foresee a sweet time ahead.

“What I crave now is quiet, inside and out.  I am in the perfect place for me now.  Other people may not understand that.  Monks would.  Some of them anyway.  Bob [Lax] would.  When you are ready for it, nothing is a greater gift than quiet.  Silence.  To reach that state of readiness, though, you must become vulnerable.  Easily wounded.  You must pass through a period of withdrawal that may include irritation, psychic pain, worry and even fear.  I know my soul isn’t settled yet.  I am not yet like a baby quieted at its mother’s breast, as the psalm suggests.  I am close, though.  I desire quiet—and to be quiet—more than anything.  I am still enough to pause as I reach for a drink and admire the beauty of a glass of water in the morning sun.

“In this quiet, I seek to be—to become—peaceful, a man of peace.  I seek peace in a way and to a depth I haven’t in a long time.  I’m not sure I was capable of it before but I feel capable now.  I am a thirsty deer thrusting my head toward the still pond.

“While I’m up here I want to lose my anger, my impatience, my frustration.  I want to establish reservoirs of love, peacefulness and good will.  I want to rid myself of small thoughts about my career and shift back to thinking about the needs of the poor and suffering in this world.  I want to read and write and enjoy the bounty of nature.”