discovery

Learning to sit

September 21, 2016 | 14 Comments

Thinking and feeling

March 23, 2016 | 12 Comments

“Writing is thinking! Writing is feeling!” enthused one of my students near the end of Spring term. This was at Virginia Tech, where I have been teaching in the Lifelong Learning Institute this academic year.

I’ll call her Helen. At the start of class, Helen had seemed confident of her thinking ability—she’d spent a distinguished career reasoning and writing. But she’d seemed not so sure she could emote for readers. Or ask them for an emotional response, let alone provoke it. Helen’s comment took me back to 2005, when I started writing my memoir. I enjoyed building that narrative, but it was work. Writing is concentrated thought, I marveled. That’s why it’s hard. Most of us seldom think about one thing for hours on end. But there’s a huge compensation, I came to see.

“I think what makes writing addictive is that it doesn’t just capture thought, it creates thought,” I told my class one afternoon. “You write a sentence, make a claim. And then you write another. And then you look at those two sentences and write down what you didn’t know you knew. Because you didn’t. Writing doesn’t only capture thought, it creates it.”

Now I didn’t pause to credit the sources who helped me describe this quality. So here I will. Surely writing theorist Peter Elbow influenced my thinking (See my post “Writing’s ‘dangerous method.’ ”) But Donald M. Murray, who nails writing’s rewards in The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition), lent me the words:
“It is thinking itself. . . . ”

This is what I found, and I think what Helen experienced.

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Q&A: Monica Wood

June 17, 2015 | 9 Comments

I asked fiction writer and memoirist Monica Wood to discuss memoir’s “for the people” aspect—the personal benefits of examining one’s life in written story—in relation to memoir as literature. Some critics seem to get irate when people they view as amateur, non-literary types publish their stories. For example, last year in the Washington Post Jonathan Yardley unloaded an anti-youth, anti-memoir, anti-MFA screed in a review of 34-year-old Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue. The issue won’t die. Recently there were columns by Leslie Jamison and Benjamin Moser in the New York Times Book Review on “Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?”

Wood, the author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, said “I think you’re making the distinction between writing that serves as catharsis for the writer alone, and writing that aspires to speak to the human condition universally. Catharsis is a perfectly valid reason for writing, and I recommend it. But there’s a difference between writing a book and publishing a book. Although the Yardley screed seems awfully mean, I know what he’s getting at. I haven’t read the memoir in question, so I offer no opinion on Epilogue, but I have read a few memoirs by both young and older writers that make too little effort to look OUTWARD.”

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Lie, steal, remake?

April 22, 2014 | 4 Comments

As a lifelong writing student, I’ve resisted writing prompts—a lazy doubting stubbornness that’s fading as I see repeatedly in my classes their utility and power. Spurred by an exercise, my “Writing Life Stories” students have just produced some of their best work of the semester.

I can’t go into the stories my students told. But suffice it to say that their essays’ opening lies—in their yearning and often-iconic specifics—take on such power, resonance, and frequently sadness as we learn the truth. Yet the retrospective wisdom fostered by the nature and placement of the truth-telling narrator makes it all moving, bearable, and a gift.

A former neighbor and hired helper of mine, whom I portray as Sam in my book Shepherd: A Memoir, used to call daffodils “Easter flowers.” I doubt Sam knew their “real” name, and his folk-poetry label for the Narcissus species spoke volumes.

Right now, in a perennial bed paces from where I write, my daffodils ordered last Fall are up and blooming for the first time. I’d planted them in the root system of a massive silver maple, and feared I hadn’t gotten them deep enough. Maybe they didn’t all make it. Yet now, at least some are blooming and some will replicate, Spring’s very essence. Their white and yellow faces form a luminous statement of hope and joy—indeed of rebirth—in this weary world. There they’ll endure, annually remaking what’s so old into news that’s forever so new.

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Writing Illness

April 7, 2014 | 16 Comments

Illness is a theme of my “Writing Life Stories” class this semester. The students noticed it, not me. But then, four are nursing majors. In one of our texts, Lee Martin’s collection of memoir essays Such a Life, his father’s traumatic accident that cost him his hands casts a shadow across every line; and Martin explores his own boyhood bout with thyroid illness and his middle-age health crisis, an ordeal of corneal abrasion. Running through another of our main texts, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, is her mother’s illness and death from cancer.

Then Thomas Larson visited last week.

He’s got a new book out, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (my review and interview), and my students had read its powerful first quarter, which depicts Larson’s first heart attack and its aftermath. They also read his essay “The Woman on the Corner,” about his grandfather’s suffering and death from cancer and their effect on his grandmother. In introducing Larson, I also prepped the class by mentioning his book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (reviewed), and I played part of a YouTube performance of “Adagio for Strings” with 5.8 million hits: a concert three days after the 9/11 attacks.

My students really wanted to know how Larson can write so personally about himself, his family, his body. Last year, this was also among the first questions for Lee Martin during his visit. Every non-writer wonders about this, I think. And most memoirists. “No one tells everything,” a writer once told me. But writers tend to view their experiences as material, as something to make art from, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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Emotion becomes an essay

February 13, 2014 | 19 Comments

Every winter I find myself turning briefly to the Romantics, and I partake of Wordsworth and Keats, there on the treadmill in the basement, staring at an old mass market anthology, yellowed and torn. But it’s been sustained, my poetry reading, this cold and snowy winter.

It began with seeing a couple of surfers in mid-January. I was down in Florida, staying at my sister’s condo on Melbourne Beach, a few miles down Highway A1A from where we grew up in Satellite Beach. My wife and sister had left, and there I was alone with the dog. My schedule was to read Anna Karenina, and then work on planning my Spring classes, and then take the dog for an hour’s walk. Sometimes I got out rather late. Like the day at 4 o’clock when, in a silent empty subdivision, I witnessed two boys roaring toward the beach on skateboards, their surfboards under their arms, and I tagged along and watched them surf.

The episode triggered a confused longing in me for my own beach-town boyhood—but also a surging hope: gladness that kids were still growing up partaking of oceanic gifts. And also I felt a comfort in this new human wave that’s rapidly overtaking me; it will seem fitting and proper when I dissolve into that bottomless, fathomless sea of DNA from which they’ve arisen. At least I hope so.

The emotions I felt from seeing those surfer dudes, the embodiment of my own beach boyhood, were such a welter of loss and love that I wanted to capture the experience of witnessing them at play in the waves. But for three days I didn’t know how. What form might such a piece take? I kept thinking, How can I let that moment pass? Not make something?

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A new flash nonfiction manual

October 21, 2012 | 14 Comments

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp. They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell —Chuck Berry, “You Never …

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