MY LIFE

A creator’s credo

May 10, 2017 | 10 Comments

My grandfather’s essay

May 3, 2017 | 9 Comments

Driving back and forth between Ohio and Virginia late last winter and into spring, as I taught a short course in memoir at Virginia Tech, I thought of how I might write an essay about my granddaughter. Or rather, about the twelve-plus hours in February when I had cared for her alone.

Let me repeat and recast that: a guy in his sixties, with a bad back and a grumpy demeanor, was tasked with watching a toddler, then in the throes of the Terrible Twos, alone for over twelve hours. Oh, she’s adorable—the cutest, sweetest, smartest kid on Earth—but she does something different every 30 seconds. A force of nature, she totally sets your agenda. And did I mention that she doesn’t nap when at home, only at daycare? That she’s in the Terrible Twos? For the uninformed, the latter means “no” is a fraught word. So I’d rolled with the punches, all 12.5 hours of them.

At the end, punch drunk, I had only two clear memories of that Saturday. A vivid one at the start and another indelible moment at the end. Two memories to work with. Which seemed great, in a way: open with the first and close with the second. A memoir sandwich. I steadily warmed to this, seeing how beautifully those two moments captured my and Little Kathy’s rollercoaster of emotions and activities. It was so intense, I have only two memories! She wiped my slate clean and almost killed me! Perfect. The problem, of course, emerged as I tried to write the essay. I have only two clear memories of that day.

Much spilled out for the middle, don’t get me wrong. As I said in my email to my memoir class for retirees that starts tonight, “After this class, should you choose, you’ll be well on your way to inflicting your own grandchild, dog . . . partner, self, or family on the unsuspecting world!”

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Making Notting Hill’s long list

March 29, 2017 | 14 Comments

A year and a half ago, I wrote about my excitement at having drafted an essay in which I relive accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. That’s the main story, but the essay really explores the complex relationship among memory, story, and imagination as I relive that trip and some other early memories. What happened to provoke it was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery two summers ago. That reminded me of a cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, over 55 years later. Why?

I found out late last week that my long complexly braided essay, “The Founder Effect,” has made the 2017 long list for the prestigious Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British-run worldwide biennial competition. They pay $20,000 and publish the winner, and publish their short list of top finalists. Two friends also made the long list: Jill Christman, who teaches at Ball State University, in Indiana, and Dave Madden, who teaches in the MFA program of the University of San Francisco.

I don’t expect my essay to go further—I’m counting the long list as its award. What an honor and unexpected achievement. It’s hard to remember what I was thinking when I sent it in. For great reading, go to the 2015 long list and search your chosen authors and their titles—these “losing” essays have since appeared in an array of journals, and many are readable on line.

My essay will soon be three years old, and I’m still fiddling with it. After my first year of working on it, I had it so messed up. I quit it and dashed off (in comparison, at least) an essay on my crazy dog that was well received on Longreads. I actually used in the dog essay something I was trying in “The Founder Effect,” which is showing how I jump to conclusions about people and situations from mere scraps. I think that’s common, and says something about the operating system of the human mind: stories.

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We can fix a sexist blip

November 16, 2016 | 16 Comments

I flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to American anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!

I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George Bush.

The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.

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Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a revelation, such writing that was “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.

This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. Offutt, as his oldest child, got the job when he died of archiving the man’s ton published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.

His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. But he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden.

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She wore white

October 26, 2016 | 15 Comments

By the final presidential debate, who could deny that our nation’s howling retrograde armies have assumed the bodily form of Donald Trump? In the face of ignorance and evil, Hillary Clinton acquitted herself almost flawlessly and looked fantastic. Her white suit alluded to the long struggle by women in America for equal treatment—and thereby stood, as well, for justice for all. In contrast, Trump was his usual vile self, and the Women of the House of Trump dressed in black—Melania capping her ensemble with a “pussy-bow” blouse, as if to refer dismissively, from the summit of haute couture, to her husband’s vulgarities. Symbolism has never had it so good.

There’s been so much inspired ink on what Trump’s surprising level of support means. The dominant narrative, of course, is that it springs from economic pain among America’s middle- and lower-middle classes. But clearly in this backlash there’s also a strong racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, homophobic component. Trump’s sole gift as a leader may be, in stirring the embers of fear and pain, to kindle rage. As a progressive who fervently believes in American exceptionalism, I’m worried. A proven cure for angry, unexamined feelings is education, which leads to consideration of others’ viewpoints and to self-inquiry, but that’s a slow process.

As for Clinton’s steely pragmatic nature, similar doubts might’ve been sounded about Abraham Lincoln, who worked as a tough, amoral lawyer. He represented a railroad. Who could have predicted his rise to personal and political greatness? That is, besides pretty much the entire South?

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Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

Writing about a dog’s death, or even a dead dog, risks sentimentality. I mean, the writer seeking from readers emotion he hasn’t earned. I must like the animal sub-genre of dog deaths, though, because I’ve read so many. And, as my previous posts have explained, I’ve just written an essay concerning my late Labrador, Tess. I realized, writing it, that I should take the advice I’ve given so many freshmen students trying to write about a recently dead grandparent.

“Show readers, in scenes and details, your grandparent,” I’ve told them. “You must convey in specifics what you lost to show the world what it lost.” The “world” is grand shorthand for unknown readers, of course. Which in those cases actually is always me and a few peers. We’re the kindly stand-ins for those uncaring readers whose armor the writer must crack. It’s best to think of readers as friends, actually.

But to have a chance of moving readers emotionally, the writer must recreate a singular, not a generic, beloved. The writer must not just summarize what s/he experienced but, as a rule, be specific regarding the remembered gifts of time, talk, and events. This can be hard with a dog, or at least with its middle years, just as with a person. We remember beginnings and endings. I’ve stolen this notion from Jill Christman’s spooky little essay, with an aside on that phenomenon, “Family Portrait: in Third Person,” in superstition [review].

Maybe we remember and can depict the start and end of something because we return so easily to those emotional states. As Virginia Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” strong emotion must leave a trace. But long middle acts blur in literature as in life. Many situations, and therefore emotions, were in play. You remember the day you got the puppy, remember who you were. There’s a snapshot in your mind. In my case, of a bearded newspaper reporter with hair like Elvis, dashing hectically—and heroically, he thought—around at age 26,. And you remember the end of something, when time briefly stopped. In my case, as a book publisher and father of two, age 39 and bald, with a creaky back.

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