structure

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 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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My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

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Rhythm and blues

May 18, 2016 | 4 Comments

In the year after Barbara O’Rourke was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer, in her early fifties, her 32-year-old daughter, Meghan, became engaged, got married, and then separated. She changed jobs, divorced, started dating a man on the opposite coast, numbed out, and melted down.

Meghan O’Rourke portrays this siege of anticipatory grief in her celebrated memoir, The Long Goodbye. The title refers to the fact that she was granted time with her beloved mother. Diagnosed in May 2006, Barbara died on Christmas of 2008. But it also refers to the fact that Meghan’s goodbye to her mother will never end. Living without her remains like “waking up in a world without sky.”

Barbara and her husband both worked for many years for a private school in Brooklyn, before Barbara became a headmaster in Connecticut. As Meghan and her two younger brothers were growing up, the family spent summers at friends’ forest cabins and rural retreats. In O’Rourke’s portrait, Barbara enjoyed motherhood and fostered independence, creativity, and healthy self-esteem in her children; she exuded serenity and yet was wry and feisty. Barbara gave her daughter a blank journal when she was five that helped turn her toward writing. Now an accomplished poet, O’Rourke evokes life’s hardest passage precisely. At the same time, she muses on its meaning and recalls the past, including the many bone-deep gifts of love that fueled her pain.

When Barbara’s time came, at age 55, after protracted medical ordeals, the family gratefully called hospice. While praising hospice as a balm in her mother’s passing, O’Rourke shows that’s also a relative measure—because nothing’s great when your mother is dying.

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Top reads of 2015

December 28, 2015 | 6 Comments

M Train is a portrait of the artist in real time. Patti Smith rambles around New York City, travels overseas to attend a meeting of an odd society devoted to continental drift that suddenly disbands; she writes and muses in a beloved café near her East Village townhouse that one day simply closes. She impulsively buys a Far Rockaway beach shack that Hurricane Sandy promptly submerges.

We see her consume much coffee and the odd meal—vegetarian snacks, really, they seem to keep her going. She tends her cats, falls into bed with her clothes on, somehow loses a beloved coat, leaves a special camera on a park bench. Spacey? Truly. Yet paradoxically mindful. She’s always reading, writing, drawing—and charmingly caught up in TV detective series. Her book’s title may refer to memory, where Smith spends many waking hours. Her past and ongoing lives feel deeply processed. A stoic romantic, her globetrotting habits include tending dead poets’ graves.

For all this detail, she leaves out a lot. Her focus may be the key to M Train. And you always know where she is in time and space or flashback—reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (reviewed)—despite scant connective tissue. She never plods in what’s basically a chronologically intercut with penumbras of backstory. There’s almost nothing on her poetry and music careers; Smith’s past lives emerge as resonant memories during her peripatetic foreground narrative.

This is a widow’s story. A message from someone in her late sixties living with loss. Her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, vanished at age 45, slain by a heart attack; her beloved brother who managed her tours fell to a stroke soon after. Smith’s laconic artistry can be seen in her placement of Fred’s spare scenes. No deathbed stuff, however. And her two adult children don’t appear in this slice of life. If sadness suffuses M Train, the book isn’t glum. Shining through is Smith’s sense, lifelong and apparently innate, of divinity.

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Structure & style

October 14, 2015 | 13 Comments

Published writers always say revision is the sin qua non of effective prose. Dinty W. Moore just affirmed it in my interview with him—he claims to produce weak first drafts, which become strong as they undergo up to 50 revisions. In her new The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says one of her poems might take 60 versions. “I am not much of a writer,” she says, “but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”

I used to think I was a great reviser myself. Probably because I edit and polish as I go, and then polish some more. Recently I’ve seen that two factors that impair my revising also seem to afflict some other writers.

The first issue involves resistance to complete structural overhauls. I saw this in my book. I put it through six versions, which embodied two excellent, hired developmental edits; one free problematic one; a paid whole-book copy edit; and countless piecemeal edits from friends and fellow writers. After all that, I resisted—because I feared—the mere idea of soliciting one more opinion. I was scared that someone would show me clearly that I needed a whole new approach that would send me back to the blank screen.

I’ve seen this resistance in other writers, and it’s a problem if the writer has stopped too soon—no matter how many years s/he’s labored. Ironically, and thankfully, while reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at the eleventh hour, I saw a key structural move I needed. And a new template for my prologue. I’ve written about this breakthrough, which I saw only because of years of work, including the advice I had been receptive to. After learning how to use backstory from Strayed, and writing a new prologue that like hers showcases a dramatic moment, I knew my book was ready.

It gives me chills to recall that an editor had actually suggested, at the very start of my writing, the restructuring I took from Wild—but I’d forgotten his advice

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Memoir’s fiery psychic struggle

October 7, 2015 | 15 Comments

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr reiterates her everlasting obsession: honesty in personal prose. She’s been criticized in the past for protesting a bit much about memoirists not fabricating. Her practice is of sharing pages with those mentioned. The revelation here is how she unites this basic concern with the thrilling imperative to find an authentic perspective/voice/persona. As she puts it:

“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. . . . The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”

She skims over many writers’ obsession, structure, feeling it’s your perspective that determines in the first place the story you structure: “Usually the big story seems simple: They were assholes. I was a saint. If you look at it ruthlessly, you may find the story was more like: I richly provoked them, and they became assholes; or, They were mostly assholes, but could be a lot of fun to be with; or, They were so sick and sad, they couldn’t help being assholes, the poor bastards; or, We took turns being assholes.”

Karr observes that the you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the past you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. Karr feels that inner conflict is memoir’s real driving force:

“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together . . .”

Ah, the mysterious nature of self, memory, and remembered self. Upon these memoir (and much of adult life) rests. Starting with finding your truth-finding-and-telling present self, maybe the macro-struggle to achieve authenticity—a fair truth—is why we honor personal writing, if we do. In Karr’s portrait, this subset of literature is, in its beauty and risk, a scale model of the larger struggle to be awake and human.

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