structure/Hermit Crab

Pain’s parallel kingdom

April 12, 2017 | 6 Comments

Doubt confronts faith

April 22, 2016 | 7 Comments

Some of us miss the personal dimension in nonfiction that deals relentlessly with its main subject—who is writing this thing and why? Others find memoir claustrophobic—where’s the larger world, other people, everyday life? The practice of telling both stories in the same work is ancient, but such books were a harder sell for all concerned until publishers could slap “memoir” on quirky personal narratives. Labels can matter. In an interesting talk at the 2013 River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, writer Michelle Herman called “stealth memoir” a bogus genre she made up. Like calling a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” however, stealth memoir is a discerning and useful phrase. It may be helping shape a subgenre by focusing and encouraging writers to include themselves while inquiring into a larger external subject.

Three of my favorite stealth memoirs are Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer; Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior (reviewed) by Brandon Schrand; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman.

My latest enjoyable discovery in this realm is Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir. Funny and personally poignant, while also an interestingly reported foray into the Bible Belt by a doubting English descendant of Charles Darwin. I admire the way Chapman writes honestly about himself even as he skewers others, especially Bible thumpers, but always with a compassionate wink. He both discerns and forgives others’ crutches and foibles, having racked up so many disasters himself. He talks at length, often in brave encounters, with people who are stunningly different from himself. These folks range from scary barflies to sweet true-believing students from a fundamentalist college.

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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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Mister Essay Guy

September 30, 2015 | 9 Comments

In Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty W. Moore plays both straight man and humorist. He answers prominent creative nonfiction questioners—who pose ridiculous or book-length conundrums—and then he presents his more-or-less illustrative essay. Out of the absurd queries flow pervasive exaggeration, deft timing, addled answers, and wry storytelling. This sustained comedic performance glimmers with wisdom concerning life and the creation of art.

To state the obvious: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy employs the structure of an advice column. Many now call such a borrowed structure a “hermit crab,” a term coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant. Within Moore’s clever container, this mega hermit crab, are baby ones, such as essays presented as lists, and one on a cocktail napkin.

And then there’s his playful, celebrated experiment in form, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” a Google Maps essay on his encounters as a bumbling college student charged with escorting the befuddled literary lion. A personal favorite Moore works in is “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty Reasons Why My Daughter’s Turning Twenty Can’t Come Soon Enough”; he explains in his preceding answer that it’s all he could salvage from a failed book project on adolescent girls that consumed five years of hard labor.

In “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?” Moore appreciatively dissects the craft of two con artists who fleeced him on the street. This is reminiscent of his essay “The Comfortable Chair: Using Humor in Creative Nonfiction,” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerrard, which profiles an unctuous but irrepressible furniture salesman named Howie. Moore so admires professional competence that he’s amused by Howie and less than outraged by the latter pair of larcenous fellow travelers.

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Emphasizing structure

April 29, 2015 | 6 Comments

I suppose like all writing teachers, I try to emulate certain teachers. But mostly I’m trying to be the teacher I wish I’d had. Someone who illuminates a genre and saves me from myself. The latter is too much to ask, I know. But here’s a secret. I think I’ve become a good teacher of memoir writing, at least for beginners.

A key reason for my feeling of success is my evolving emphasis on structure. In my experience, green writers can produce creditable-to-impressive work if they focus not just on the story they want to tell but on how best to present it. Fine work ensues in my memoir classes if I show students framing, braiding, Hermit Crabs, and segmentation along with scenes and persona and the rest. Structure cracks open their material to themselves. Structure makes the eye-popping difference between a plodding chronology and a memoir essay enriched with layers and refreshing rhetorical moves.

I’m talking about receiving poignant and interesting work from a twenty-year-old. Someone who has read one novel for enjoyment in his life, whose grasp of grammar is shaky, and who has never willingly written. Much less taken a creative writing class. Maybe every teacher is doing that. If so, I’m conceited for suspecting I’m special. But amidst the very hard work of teaching, receiving such writing keeps me going. A kid’s essay may be a tad lumpy, a lopsided vase, especially the first draft, but it can also be—undeniably—art.

“Art is made of emotion, is about emotion, and asks for an emotional response,” I told my students this semester.

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Perils of persona 2.0

March 27, 2015 | 8 Comments

In life we present ourselves to others amidst their constant feedback. Body language, words, eyes that twinkle or harden. Our micro adjustments to emotional currents are constant. We’re bred to send and receive signals. On the page, though, how do you know how you’re coming across?

I’ve been pondering this, as I do when I teach or write. But also because of recent events. In the first, I Skyped with a book group that had read my memoir. They gathered at RiverRead Books, a fine independent bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York.

I got the sense—maybe a memoirist’s paranoia—that, like most book groups, they read mostly fiction. Which may partly explain one nice lady’s keen frustration with me as a character in the book. And look: Here’s that obtuse character is in the flesh. Or at least on the computer screen. A reckoning was in order. She wanted to know how I could have done it, ignored good sense and my wife and torn down a charming little cabin on our farm? All because I didn’t want to use farmland to build a house? When we didn’t even build the house after all?

Facing this sweet, smiling, frustrated woman, I was speechless. Her issue with me then felt so personal now. My thoughts raced. I created your love for that cabin. I created that dork who tore it down. I wanted you to be frustrated with me then.

As the Bible says, humans are “born for trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” Literature is about trouble. You can play trouble for comedy or drama, but baby you play it.

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Teaching memoir, ver. 3.0

March 11, 2015 | 14 Comments

I blogged last year about teaching memoir by emphasizing the essentials of persona, scene, and structure. Except now I list and teach scene first because students get the macro aspects of voice faster—essentially persona, the writer now, talking to us about the past—but many need help understanding how and why to dramatize, to make scenes. So SPS: scene, persona, structure. From the start, this gives us a shared vocabulary. To understand scene, you must understand summary—and often students who have written vivid summary think they’ve written scene.

That’s the thing about teaching writing: you must teach so much at once. You hope that by providing good models, students will emulate more than the stated focus. And they do. Nothing teaches the teacher, however, like teaching. Last year, my college juniors and seniors in “Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative” said they wished that I’d emphasized structures earlier. So this time I have.

Structure, the shaped mode of presentation, excites students. They see how it can help them crack open their material. They grasp that it can cut plodding “and then” or unnecessary backstory. Halfway through the semester, already I’ve shown them: braiding; framing ; collage; and Hermit Crabs. Next we’ll look at segmentation.

Emphasizing essay structures has caused me to realize that I can organize my entire class by examining different writing structures.

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