Dillard—Saint Annie

A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Annie Dillard surfaces

May 3, 2016 | 23 Comments

New Yorker editor David Remnick has scored a coup, or at least a scoop, by interviewing the reclusive Annie Dillard for the magazine’s radio show. The occasion is Dillard’s retrospective essay collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. The book has occasioned a flurry of speculation in the literary world about Dillard’s retirement, notably a strained essay, “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”, by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic positing that Dillard somehow boxed herself in with her mystical interests.

So the key question Remnick asked was why did she retire from writing, some years ago now, to spend her days painting? She wrote by hand, she told him, and one day couldn’t remember where she was going with the start of a promising sentence she’d left the previous day on her legal pad. Short-term memory loss, in short, is her explanation for her retirement from writing. Dillard, now 71, does not sound, in this rare interview, to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, as has been rumored. She sounds sharp as a double-headed tack.

Of her books, she prizes most my favorite: For the Time Being (reviewed). She marvels, “Writers adore that book,” but then she’s always been a writer’s writer. In it, she said, she bites off a big chunk of her preoccupation with human existence. All I can say is it’s in my pantheon as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Remnick questions her about her spooky essay “Total Eclipse,” which she reads from and analyzes. She explains her goal was to invoke the eclipse in readers. But the challenge was keeping them reading—dense description of the long event and Dillard’s reaction would lose them, she felt. Hence her decision to keep returning to the eclipse, repeating, each time at a deeper level, her experience of the power and primeval horror of the light’s loss.

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Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Why write?!

October 28, 2015 | 6 Comments

Writing is discovery, listening, love, and gift-giving over discipline and suffering. Mary Karr’s concise comment likening writing to hardship—fun only for neophytes and hacks—in The Art of Memoir has served as a magnet to attract to me emendations and counter-arguments. Like poet Claudia Rankine’s. In her recent essay for the Washington Post she admits to struggle. But the point of writing for Rankine seems to be its rewards, including sending her to read books.

There’s loving reading. There’s liking making sentences. There’s the discovery and attempted perfection of your truth. Isaac Asimov supposedly said, “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Yes, writing is concentrated thought, which makes it hard, though saying it that way that misses the emotional component that Rankine alludes to. I too pull books from the shelves—just to see how a brilliant book is made of many great and ordinary sentences.

Literature’s demands and ideals militate against mere egotism. Writers speak for the mute Other and the muted populace. If those imperatives seem passé in the age of social media, print culture won’t let them pass. Reading and writing epitomize interpersonal connection and personal transcendence.

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Poetry of Light in August

June 22, 2015 | 8 Comments

William Faulkner began as a poet, and it shows. He adores words. His sentences shine as well in Light in August, sometimes referred to as his greatest novel. Sometimes it’s also called his most accessible great one, the last bead on his string of masterpieces between 1929 and 1932: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary. I remember Light in August fondly from college. I wrote mostly poetry then, and realized only recently that I had based a character, in an epic poem I was slaving over on nights, after the novel’s immortal Lena Grove.

Rereading it this summer, I’m struck by how sure a writer Faulkner was. His sentences thrill and inspire. Then again, there are enough of those Faulkneresque doozies to keep you on your toes. The story is simple. Lena Grove, a poor and naïve, very pregnant but indomitable, a girl from nowhere Alabama, tracks her feckless beau to Mississippi. He works as a sawdust shoveler at a sawmill with a fellow named Joe Christmas, a bootlegger, soon-to-be murderer, and all-around tortured soul. Suffice it to say, troubles ensue.

Some of Faulkner’s sentences are seemingly based on his observations, others seemingly arise from his immersion in his fictive story.

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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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My blog turns six today!

July 17, 2014 | 14 Comments

After my previous post, about quirky personal posts I recall fondly, my blogger friend Shirley Showalter asked me to discuss the benefits and difficulties of blogging in my life. In the past year I’ve struggled for the first time to post—the long energy-producing effort of drafting my memoir over. Plus having to face the What’s next? question. For most people, probably me too, blogging is a phase. For all I know, this is my last post.

So that’s the difficulty part. But the blog has helped me as a writer—kept my prose and my persona down to earth, underscored obsessions, given instant gratification. It has forced me to create something on the fly that turned out to please me and has inspired me to laboriously craft a post that has likewise surprised me. Sometimes I’ve thought, I should have done that for a real publication. But the truth is, without an existing affiliation, like this blog, I wouldn’t have.

The blog made me do it. Paul Thorne, the Mississippi blues-soul-rock musician says it best: “Whatever expression you have in you, instead of thinking about it all the time, do it. Make it tangible, you know? That’s what art is, it’s creativity made tangible.”

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