Desire in a thirsty land

May 28, 2014 | 16 Comments

We read literature to escape, if only briefly, our own subjective silos. We yearn to piggyback upon someone else’s experience of life. And we seek, as well, clarity: the meaning someone has harvested from her existence—also the order and beauty in that restless act, that hero’s effort to distill coherence from the quotidian.

Here is a story; here is its wisdom.

The wonderful thing about this fine memoir, Julene Bair’s recent The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, is that it shines so brightly in both dimensions. Here is why books remain quietly important. Why they’re still honored in an age of louder, less personal mass media and of jittery, flash-in-the-pan social media.

The Ogallala Road opens with Bair on a quest for water, which she loves, this child of a thirsty landscape. She’s roaming beside a creek in the High Plains of western Kansas, trying to assess the effects of irrigation. She’s researching an essay. And then she meets, trespassing on his range, the Marlboro Man.

Not exactly, but Ward is rather iconic. A cowboy, not a sodbuster; a horseman, not a tractor jockey. In some ways, he’s very different from her dirt-farmer father, but like him he epitomizes Kansas itself. He’s also read her first book, the essay collection One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter. He’s handsome, sure, but the fact that he reads seals the deal.

Julene, 53 at this point and twice divorced, is long single. Sparks fly between this feminist environmentalist trying to make amends—with Kansas, with its remnant prairie and streams—and this macho cowboy just looking for a sweet ride across Earth’s trampled face. (Politics be damned: this thing between women and men never ends.) You wonder if it’s too late for her son, though; a boy who has always openly craved a father figure, he’s become a rebellious teenager.

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Wounded family

May 19, 2014 | 4 Comments

Lee Martin’s From Our House has an honored place in my personal aesthetic pantheon and in my heart. I’ve read it four times over the years. It concerns his growing up with a rageful father, who had lost both hands in a farming accident, and a meek schoolteacher mother. She stood by, helpless to stop her husband’s harsh treatment of their son, unable to protect young Lee from Roy Martin’s mean words and brutal whippings.

Despite its easygoing narrative, rich in plot yet also feeling searchingly essayistic, this portrait of one troubled family possesses a riveting force. You sense that the surface events unfolding as Lee grows up reflect his family’s deep inner struggle to transcend its patriarch’s physical and psychic wounds. Martin evokes his experience in scenes while also slipping into the action musings by his older and wiser self. For one price, we get two points of view—that of the sensitive, difficult boy and that of the wiser adult he became.

This dual quality, layering the story and enriching the reader’s understanding of it, exists in Martin’s narration even when the retrospective writer’s presence is subtle.

Throughout From Our House, the boy’s experience and the writer’s understanding show how pain, regret, and anger—helplessly entwined with love—can ripple forever inside people from dysfunctional families. This can be passed on, an enduring emotional legacy—like the gift to self and others of a happy childhood, though of course different in effect. What makes this fate so painful is that sufferers know old wounds can warp them in the present; their burden clouds when and how and whether they assert themselves. How to be properly and maturely assertive, when your pain and your parental example want aggression—or passivity? But no matter how justified negative emotions feel, any adult who experiences them knows they’re toxic.

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Content + Craft = Art

March 13, 2014 | 13 Comments

This is the second Spring I’ve taught “Writing Life Stories,” which is creative nonfiction for non-majors, college juniors and seniors. As always, this class underscores for me writing’s good news/bad news situation: writing talent is common. Among about 20 students, one is a writing major, and several others are avowed artists—of ceramics, music, theatre—but the largest single cohort this year is nursing students, who are doing impressive work. The most advanced writers, as always, are readers and journal-keepers, or who were in childhood, whether they’ve ever taken a creative writing class or not.

The first night I drew on the chalkboard a huge circle with an arrow from it to an equation: C + C = A. The circle is the vast self (which to me includes the collective unconscious of our species, though I don’t go into all that). The first C is in a rectangle and represents what the self is given to work with, which is content—the self’s encounter with the world. Both the circle and the first C are black-box mysteries, as far as teaching is concerned.

The second C is craft, and the line that flows onward from it goes to A: art.

“Craft is what releases art,” I told the kids that first night. “And art announces itself in form.”

While talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not, so craft is our appropriate focus. If I’m wrong, at least I’m clear. And let’s face it, clarity is rare in this world too. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes in teaching—just as I’ve lamented some of my shoot-from-the-hip posts here—but an instructor’s passion counts for a lot, as in blogging, even if he later views his ideas as half-baked or his execution as inept.

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Teaching memoir’s essentials

February 28, 2014 | 22 Comments

For my second year, I’m teaching “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” to a class of college juniors and seniors. There are 19 students this year, only one a writing major, though several other declared artists—of music, theatre, ceramics, film—among the future nurses, veterinarians, and teachers. In short, this is creative writing for non-majors. For the seniors, it’s their final semester. Their last chance to take a “fun” elective. Perchance to reflect, to second guess, to move forward. Seeing college careers end with my class is always so poignant. When the glory of late spring comes at last, there they’ll go, flying into their futures like so many valiant storm-tossed sparrows.

I loved last year’s class, but feel I’m doing a better job this time. I’ve codified everything learned last time—and from many other journalism, memoir, and cnf classes I’ve taught or taken over the years—into a focus on three essential elements of personal narrative nonfiction. In practice, I know, you have to teach much more than that at once. I harp on sentence diversity and rhythms from the start, for instance. Writers must learn to do so much at once, which is what makes writing challenging. Some talents do burn bright and quick, but I think of writing as a comparatively late-blooming art. Though I may change my tune by the end, for now I love the focus provided by telling the kids from the first day that our three big tools for reading and writing memoir are persona, scene, and structure.

Lee Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona. Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale. Surely this reflective narrator is embedded in our DNA.

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Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

February 4, 2013 | 20 Comments

Review: Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom. “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty. Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp. Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, …

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Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

January 17, 2013 | 29 Comments

Storytelling & spirituality in Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist text. Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp. As last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with …

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Around the web

November 4, 2012 | 3 Comments

Richard Russo on his new memoir, Elsewhere. For some reason, I put in a standing order a long time ago for Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir, and now here it sits on my coffee table, a book, it turns out, about his close but conflicted relationship with his mother. Maybe I was eager because I enjoyed Empire Falls, or maybe I was curious at the time about what an acclaimed novelist would do in his first work of nonfiction. Anyway, …

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