structure/braids, threads

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 22 Comments

Doubt confronts faith

April 22, 2016 | 7 Comments

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.

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Sentence, substance & comma joy

February 24, 2016 | 7 Comments

Thankfully teaching impels me to reread and study great literature. I’ve just reread, for a class I’m teaching, “Notes of a Native Son,” America’s greatest essay—greatest because its content deals with our nation’s great topic, race, and because of its artistry—and I’ve seen something new in James Baldwin’s famous prose style.

Of course his sentences work within a framed structure, opening with his father’s funeral and returning to it to close, and the essay is classically broken into three acts as well. Then there’s Baldwin’s thundering Old Testament condemnation of racism. He shows and explains his own bewildering, maddening experiences with discrimination in the 1950s. And he sees at last how the racism of America’s long apartheid era warped his father. But Baldwin, then 19, has returned too late to his father’s deathbed for them to talk, let alone to discuss how to live with this burden of bitterness.

The essay’s rounded sentences, gravid with clauses and commas, convey a deep and subtle mind groping toward personal and universal truths. Baldwin’s prose itself ruminates. He can be as halting as Henry James. At the same time, conversely, he speeds up his orotund sentences. The combination of lingering and racing ahead creates an interesting rhythm, which is part of the essay’s powerful effect. In both content and style, “Notes of a Native Son” is at once chewy and flowing.

This time through, I saw clearer why that is. Many of the commas that truncate the essay’s sentences are unnecessary, strictly speaking, but lend the essay its thoughtful air. Yet Baldwin usually omits commas at a key juncture. He consistently breaks the rule-of-thumb that commas should assist conjunctions when joining independent clauses.

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Honesty in memoir, ver. 4.0

January 13, 2016 | 16 Comments

What’s the difference, in reading experience, between fiction and nonfiction? Between reading a novel and reading a memoir?

I thought about this during the past week as I reread one of my all-time favorite memoirs, Fierce Attachments. In it, Vivian Gornick braids her story, alternating between the writer’s childhood past, her more recent, adult past, and her relationship with her mother as they talk or walk around New York. Gornick both discusses and dramatizes these realms. She is a master of the reflective persona and also of bringing her experience to life in scene.

I’d read the book probably three times before. What was different this time is I had just slogged through a traditional chronological plotted novel, a traditional plotted and chronological memoir that verged on autobiography, and was trying to read another traditional plotted novel. These books, in stark contrast to Gornick’s, were heavy going. Her thinking and writing—at the sentence and structural level—excite me.

But would I be loving Fierce Attachments if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?

Let’s get something out of the way first. Gornick once mentioned to a roomful of journalists that she invented in Fierce Attachments a street encounter she and her mother experienced. The reporters were soon baying at her, and the flap spread online. I can’t endorse what she did, but it has never bothered me as her reader because her goal seems only to fully and honestly portray herself and mother. She might have handled her imagination differently, such as cued the reader, but she embroidered.

Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel.

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Atoka Gold, Dad’s bull

September 2, 2015 | 10 Comments

All summer I’ve been writing about cattle. My father’s bull Atoka Gold is a character, one of the purebred Herefords Dad raised during the early 1950s in California. What got me drafting a memoir essay was that in early June, when I brought my wife home from having surgery on her foot, I found a stockman’s cane among the umbrellas in our foyer.

I dimly recalled receiving the cane when I was four. This was about 1959. We had resettled by then in southwestern Georgia, and Dad bought a bull from a nearby farmer, R.W. Jones Jr. Walter Jones was a prominent breeder of polled (naturally hornless) Herefords who has since become legendary. He gave me the cane. Finding it again sent me into our basement, where I found Dad’s framed color photograph of Atoka Gold.

I wove my memories of what surrounded the cane, me, Dad, and Atoka Gold together with my research into Mr. Jones and polled Herefords. I braided in my wife’s recuperation this summer. There’s always so much to explain, but good writing concerns more than one thing—so, great. Except my essay grew at one point to 27 pages. Rather long!

In my mind from the start, the piece really illuminated the nature of memory, imagination, and story. But early readers wanted more about my relationship with my father. I resisted, having written so much before.

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Bird nerd

May 13, 2015 | 4 Comments

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald brings out the beauty and killing prowess of raptors used as hunting allies. She’s steeped in the ancient tradition of falconry, reduced, in our time, to a tiny, odd subculture. The hook for this book includes her selection of a notoriously temperamental goshawk to train instead of a comparatively easy species such as a peregrine falcon. She spends much time fretting over her hawk and frantically running after it, raising a gloved fist and blowing a whistle.

I should say her, not it: Macdonald’s goshawk is a girl. Endearingly dubbed Mabel, she is both gorgeous and a fierce avatar of death. So it’s all the more charming when Macdonald discovers that Mabel enjoys playing catch with crumpled paper wads. Mabel’s narrowed eyes mean mirth. But she’s a changeling. Triggered by sights and sounds, her quicksilver reactions—effectively her moods—are expressed in beating wings, biting beak, gripping talons.

H is for Hawk, the first memoir to win Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize, is slow at first, and dense—this was my fresh-mind morning book for a good while before I adjusted to Macdonald’s rhythms. But heightened experiences appeal, and Macdonald evokes them in a narrative rife with savory juxtapositions. She braids three stories: taming and training the goshawk; coping with her father’s death and her disordered state; depicting novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing experience with a goshawk. White’s deeply damaged psyche and tormented life anger and chasten Macdonald in her mirroring pursuit.

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Emphasizing structure

April 29, 2015 | 6 Comments

I suppose like all writing teachers, I try to emulate certain teachers. But mostly I’m trying to be the teacher I wish I’d had. Someone who illuminates a genre and saves me from myself. The latter is too much to ask, I know. But here’s a secret. I think I’ve become a good teacher of memoir writing, at least for beginners.

A key reason for my feeling of success is my evolving emphasis on structure. In my experience, green writers can produce creditable-to-impressive work if they focus not just on the story they want to tell but on how best to present it. Fine work ensues in my memoir classes if I show students framing, braiding, Hermit Crabs, and segmentation along with scenes and persona and the rest. Structure cracks open their material to themselves. Structure makes the eye-popping difference between a plodding chronology and a memoir essay enriched with layers and refreshing rhetorical moves.

I’m talking about receiving poignant and interesting work from a twenty-year-old. Someone who has read one novel for enjoyment in his life, whose grasp of grammar is shaky, and who has never willingly written. Much less taken a creative writing class. Maybe every teacher is doing that. If so, I’m conceited for suspecting I’m special. But amidst the very hard work of teaching, receiving such writing keeps me going. A kid’s essay may be a tad lumpy, a lopsided vase, especially the first draft, but it can also be—undeniably—art.

“Art is made of emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response,” I told my students this semester.

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