Some of us miss the personal dimension in nonfiction that deals relentlessly with its main subject—who is writing this thing and why? Others find memoir claustrophobic—where’s the larger world, other people, everyday life? The practice of telling both stories in the same work is ancient, but such books were a harder sell for all concerned until publishers could slap “memoir” on quirky personal narratives. Labels can matter. In an interesting talk at the 2013 River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, writer Michelle Herman called “stealth memoir” a bogus genre she made up. Like calling a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” however, stealth memoir is a discerning and useful phrase. It may be helping shape a subgenre by focusing and encouraging writers to include themselves while inquiring into a larger external subject.
Three of my favorite stealth memoirs are Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer; Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior (reviewed) by Brandon Schrand; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman.
My latest enjoyable discovery in this realm is Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir. Funny and personally poignant, while also an interestingly reported foray into the Bible Belt by a doubting English descendant of Charles Darwin. I admire the way Chapman writes honestly about himself even as he skewers others, especially Bible thumpers, but always with a compassionate wink. He both discerns and forgives others’ crutches and foibles, having racked up so many disasters himself. He talks at length, often in brave encounters, with people who are stunningly different from himself. These folks range from scary barflies to sweet true-believing students from a fundamentalist college.
I met D. A. “Daisy” Hickman, a poet and prose author, through her blog focused on writing, memoir, and spirituality, SunnyRoomStudio, a “creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.” The author of a trade-published book on the American prairie, she founded Capturing Morning Press, which reissued that book and has recently published The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone. This new memoir tells the story of her son, who struggled with substance abuse and took his own life, and recounts her grief and healing.
When I read The Silence of Morning, I was struck by Hickman’s response to her grief, which she calls “the world’s teacher in disguise.” Such a phrase is distillate. It comes from her wide perspective, which was slowly earned in the magnitude of her suffering and through her enlightened actions: reading widely and reflecting on society, herself, and her son, Matthew. These seem unusual acts, perhaps because they’re simply private. Or maybe it’s simply that a serious writer took time to convey them.
Anyone who grieves or is touched by death or illness cannot fail to notice the world’s steady preference: mindlessness. And America seems to want suffering out of sight, its impatience palpable with the sick and dying. Amidst Hickman’s inquiry into this indifference, she gives us glimpses of Matthew—the boy with the fishing pole and paper route, the struggling young man devouring books while incarcerated, the hopeful farm hand in jeans and scuffed boots seeking a fresh start.
Hickman holds a master’s degree in sociology from Iowa State University, and earned her bachelor’s degree in legal studies at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. A member of the Academy of American Poets and South Dakota State Poetry Society, she’s at work on her first poetry collection. Previously, she worked with nonprofits in the areas of organizational development, fund development, management, and strategic planning.
She answered some questions for Draft No. 4.