Content Tagged ‘Annie Dillard’

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.

[Read More]

My blog turns six today!

July 17, 2014 | 14 Comments

After my previous post, about quirky personal posts I recall fondly, my blogger friend Shirley Showalter asked me to discuss the benefits and difficulties of blogging in my life. In the past year I’ve struggled for the first time to post—the long energy-producing effort of drafting my memoir over. Plus having to face the What’s next? question. For most people, probably me too, blogging is a phase. For all I know, this is my last post.

So that’s the difficulty part. But the blog has helped me as a writer—kept my prose and my persona down to earth, underscored obsessions, given instant gratification. It has forced me to create something on the fly that turned out to please me and has inspired me to laboriously craft a post that has likewise surprised me. Sometimes I’ve thought, I should have done that for a real publication. But the truth is, without an existing affiliation, like this blog, I wouldn’t have.

The blog made me do it. Paul Thorne, the Mississippi blues-soul-rock musician says it best: “Whatever expression you have in you, instead of thinking about it all the time, do it. Make it tangible, you know? That’s what art is, it’s creativity made tangible.”

[Read More]

Six quirky posts

July 9, 2014 | 9 Comments

Of course it was summer, my favorite season, when I started this blog almost six years ago. I was working on the third version of my memoir. As if the world needed another blog about writing—but that’s what excited me. It was July. Within summer, July is my favorite month—the lawns under control, the daylilies in bloom, the gin and tonic flowing. So it wasn’t too surprising that when I picked six favorite posts, to be discussed on the blog’s birthday next Thursday, that two of them were uploaded in July.

What was surprising was how many of my pets were posted in December or January. Two of my top posts were uploaded in January; four of my six finalists, below, were written in December. I guess December makes me reflective. And January seems the July of winter—the leaf collection over, the Thanksgiving and Christmas frenzies past, the slower winter season still stretching out forever but not yet unpleasantly.

My 12 favorites are just the ones that swam to the surface of my mind, ones I wrote with great pleasure or maybe were about a subject I’ve continued to worry. Frequent themes that have developed include the aesthetics of nonfiction, the use of self in nonfiction, and storytelling structure.

But of the six runners-up, not one is about writing per se.

[Read More]

Joshua Cody’s book [sic]

January 8, 2014 | 15 Comments

The first two times I opened [sic]: A Memoir, I was impressed by Joshua Cody’s sentences—cool, syntactically complex, allusive. But I didn’t keep reading it because was working on my own book and sensed immediately that his high-flying persona was at odds with my attempt at a sincere one.

Late in 2013 I made it through [sic] and admired it, so refreshingly different from my own writing—or almost anyone’s. I wouldn’t try such a performance and couldn’t sustain one for long if I did. A possible cost of Cody’s approach is that I always felt distanced from him. How much “knowing” and liking a memoirist matters to you is intensely personal, but partly because of this, at times reading [sic] my mind wandered. Cody’s memoir showcases not only the rewards but the risks of a flamboyant (some would say egoistic) persona.

American reviewers generally raved [sic] (see the appreciative review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review), while it got a cooler reception in Europe—the Guardian’s review’s headline: “Joshua Cody’s postmodern memoir of terminal illness is too busy being clever to engage the reader’s feelings.” Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum called Cody “too cool for school” and said, “Part of the essential vanity of this publication is that Cody has been horribly overindulged, and allowed to lard his manuscript with illustrative material. [sic] is a book about sickness that should have been sent to the script doctor. It’s a mess; worse, it’s a pretentious mess. Descended from that great Victorian exhibitionist, ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, it’s almost as if he’s genetically programmed to perform to the crowd.”

But the pervasive gut-level response of Amazon’s crowd of readers was rage.

[Read More]

My top 10 essays of all time

September 14, 2013 | 11 Comments

Not that you asked. Yet who can resist such lists? Not me. Even if they are ridiculous. There are so many great essays, how can any reader limit himself to ten? Imagine doing that with short stories. But recently I got sucked into reading a list of others’ favorites, and so I made my own. Even as I wrote it, I began to disagree with it.

My top essays are listed in more or less chronological order—but also somewhat in rank order, only because an essay like “Never Thirteen,” a source for me of such delight and admiration, is so recent that no one else, to my knowledge, has ratified its greatness. So I am ahead of the curve—or just quirky. And seeing someone expose his peculiar taste is a good reason to read his list.

[Read More]

Solnit’s ‘Faraway Nearby’

August 8, 2013 | 13 Comments

Rebecca Solnit tried to leave home at fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. At last, at age seventeen, her jealous mother and her indifferent father sent her into the world like a girl in a fairy tale:

“For that odyssey my mother would not let me take any of the decent suitcases in her attic but gave me a huge broken one in which my few clothes and books rumbled like dice in a cup. My father gave me a broken travel clock that he said was worth repairing and I kept it for years before I found that it was not.”

The Faraway Nearby opens with 100 pounds of apricots, collected from her ailing mother’s tree, ripening and rotting on Solnit’s floor, a bequest and a burden as if from another fairy tale. The fruit was a story, she explains, and also “an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories.” So Solnit tells her own story, shows how she escaped it by entering the wider world of others’ stories, and how she changed her story as she better understood her unhappy mother.

What sent her mother’s indifference toward her into permanent rage was when she asked young Rebecca, age 13, for sympathy when she got a lump in her breast, and Rebecca, who hadn’t received much sympathy herself, failed to supply it. With effort, as an adult Solnit realizes that her mother had had a hard life, was trapped in her own story of victimhood, and must’ve cared for her before memory: “She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”

Out of duty and from solidarity with two of her brothers, Solnit ends up tending her mother through her long decline from Alzheimer’s. The apricots arrive near the end of this sad period, which Solnit terms a serial emergency. Having hooked us with this, her story, Solnit tells us it doesn’t much interest her anymore.

[Read More]

Lindbergh, 1927

Ray Bradbury: “Style is truth”

August 3, 2013 | 6 Comments

I’m on the road as I post this, headed for Berkeley, California, where our son is entering graduate school; one of my sisters just moved across the way, to San Francisco. My wife and I are driving cross country from Ohio. An adventure! We’ve stopped for the night in Miami, Oklahoma, which is hot and crowded with casinos. I feel at home, though, because the folks are friendly and because my Mom was from Oklahoma. This afternoon in central Missouri I knew we were getting into the West because when we stopped in the backwater of Buffalo for a soda, I noticed in the McDonald’s a row of stools had real leather kids’ saddles for seats.

We reserved a modest vehicle for this trip, but the guy at the rental company said we’d probably be uncomfortable crossing the desert and might have difficulty getting over the mountains. In fact, he implied, we might die. So we rented, for only $20 more a day, a huge (to us) Lincoln Navigator. It is black, and terrifying. We feel like real Americans at last. But will we be safe in San Francisco ensconced in such an SUV? We look like Secret Service, or drug dealers. Or both.

I’m working on a book review on the road, and meantime here is a summer roundup of stuff I’ve found interesting.

[Read More]