MFA

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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Memoir pro & con

June 5, 2015 | 16 Comments

Positive energy is the best energy, certainly the most sustainable. But we must admit the opposite is also true. There’s an odd power in negativity. A roomful of happy folks can be cast into quiet doubt by one vehement naysayer. And yet, when negativity goes too far, as Jonathan Yardley appears to do in his review for The Washington Post of Will Boast’s Epilogue: A Memoir, it kindles defiance in turn. Going beyond what he views as Boast’s inadequacy, Yardley unloads on memoir, youth, and the MFA.

He makes me want to read the book. It’s about how Boast, at age 24, is left alone in the world after his father succumbs to alcoholism—his mother and brother having already died—and he discovers that his father had sequestered a wife and two sons, Boast’s half brothers, in England. The memoir comes highly praised for its artistry, and that’s a clue to Yardley’s choler.

At first I assumed his pique was about amateurs, non-literary types getting their messy life stories into print. Then I realized it wasn’t that, not not entirely. Yardley’s broadside in large part reflects the difference between the world of New York trade books and the world of literary academic books. The camps are permeable—as Boast himself shows, winning a New York imprint (Liveright, his publisher, is a division of Norton)—but they’re very different. And Boast has the gall to straddle them: a trade publisher and artsy content.

A year after Yardley’s broadside, it appears to be the proximate cause of two interesting recent columns, “Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing Memoir” in the New York Review of Books’ series Bookends, where two writers opine on opposite sides of some divide.

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Gornick’s ‘Fierce Attachments’

September 30, 2013 | 19 Comments

Fierce Attachments stands with another classic literary memoir, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, and surpasses by dint of its warm humanity Vladimir Nabokov’s chilly Speak, Memory. I’m embarrassed it has taken me so long to read it, especially since I’ve read Vivian Gornick’s short book of memoir theory, The Situation and the Story, many times. I’ve always found the latter rather slippery—seemingly too simple, it suddenly drops into murky depths—but Fierce Attachments’ brilliant use of the memoirist’s dual persona brings it into focus.

All the same, my current reading of Fierce Attachments, originally published in 1987, is shadowed by disaster. I have two classes of freshmen reading it and they hate it. That may be a slight overstatement, but they aren’t enjoying it—it’s not a book for kids. They want events, plot. In a word, story.

What was I thinking? There’s a story here, but one it takes an adult to see: a woman trying to understand her mother, herself, and how her past forged her. Gornick was affected especially by her mother—mercurial, unlettered, brilliant—and by Nettie, an overripe, artistic, emotionally damaged widow next door.

Freshmen can’t relate. How can they, when most don’t yet own their material? Their parents, for instance aren’t yet people, let alone people who can be forged into characters. For juniors and seniors, if they’re writing majors or at least avid readers, Fierce Attachments would be a good risk. And all MFA students, especially those in creative nonfiction, should read it. Not to mention all self-taught adult memoirists. For it’s a wonder of a book, as good as they say.

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Taking the risk of being heard

July 30, 2013 | 5 Comments

A traumatized woman and her traumatized dog go for walks. This is the spine of my friend Janice Gary’s new memoir; its many layers make for interesting reading. She’s conveying experience as it unfolds, trying to understand her past, and taking risks in life and in her story’s telling. At first I worried about Gary’s putting her beloved dog under the spotlight with her for most of the book—he’s difficult, and the book’s structure puts relentless narrative pressure on her voice, outlook, and experiences. But Short Leash soon had me collared.

First, the dog. Barney is a big, goofy, smelly, allergic Lab-Rottweiler cross. He was attacked by another dog when he was a pup, and he’s become terribly aggressive to other dogs. But Gary skillfully depicts Barney’s basic good nature and his mellowing as he ages. Gradually I found myself forgiving and then liking him. He’s already an older dog and Gary is in her mid-forties when they venture out. And soon you realize what a brave act it is, beyond his aggression, for her simply to take him for a walk.

Once ambitious, artistic, and headstrong, Gary was raped when she was 19, and has spent too many years feeling scared. So the book’s major setting, a lovely park on Chesapeake Bay near her suburban Maryland home, seems safe until you look at it through her eyes. Those lonely paths. The pools of dark shade. Other dogs that Barney might attack. The mysterious bend of a trail into the woods. That rustling in the bushes. We gradually learn, too, of an earlier trauma, the suicide of her manic-depressive father when she was 15.

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Learning the craft, part one

May 8, 2013 | 18 Comments

I ponder the writer’s never-ending education. This is part one of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014. “I don’t think writers go to college,” my father informed me as I prepared to leave home for college. His unsparing honesty was one of the reasons I hadn’t revealed my ambitions, of course, but my dreams were obvious. And while Dad was trying to be helpful, …

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Celebrating my book contract

May 3, 2013 | 54 Comments

Shepherd: A Memoir to be published in Spring 2014.  I was fifty and the marketing manager of a university press when one day I decided I would write a book. My own book. The story I needed to tell. There I was, bent over a drawer in the press’s endless row of gray-green filing cabinets, and from the radio perched somewhere overhead I heard a writer, a man my age, talking about his latest book. What am I waiting for? …

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