Content Tagged ‘Jo Ann Beard’

Thinking and feeling

March 23, 2016 | 12 Comments

The wiser narrator

February 4, 2015 | 11 Comments

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Name All the Animals, by Alison Smith, one of my favorite memoirs. I reviewed it four years ago, and this semester I’m teaching it to a class of honors freshmen students under a coming-of-age memoirs theme. At the time of my review, one of the story’s most striking aspects to me was its scenic quality. I wrote, “There isn’t much authorial distance: narrated by a bereft girl, with scant mature perspective, the story has a poignant immediacy.”

How I disagree now with my (slightly) younger self! Though Smith is a scenic and subtle writer whose story breathes on the page, and is deeply embedded in her teenage life, there’s no pretense that a high school girl wrote this. Smith’s voice palpably changes at times (as when she fills us in on her parents’ early lives), and there are even more overt cues, including the standby “writer-at-her-desk now” move, “I remember.”

Why did I not see this? I suppose I got lost in the story, plus at the time I was trying to enhance the scenic quality of my own Shepherd: A Memoir. One’s response to a book is, to a large degree, a selfie. You, now. Which is why and how I learned not to teach certain great memoirs to undergraduates. They have to find a book’s characters relatable. Maybe one of the few advantages of age is that we can relate to a wider swath of humanity.

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November 17, 2014 | 12 Comments

As a teacher and writer of nonfiction, I devoured the late David Foster Wallace’s recently released creative nonfiction syllabus. Salon, which published it, called the document “mind-blowing,” evidently referring to its tough-love language.

In this blueprint for a night class he taught at Pomona College once a week in Spring 2008—so roughly six months before his death, presumably when he was already suffering from deep depression—Wallace prosecutes a rigorous, distilled aesthetic. He builds toward it in his opening “Description of Class,” which notes that “nonfiction” means it corresponds to real affairs but that creative “signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work.”

This purpose may be “to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these.’’ He continues, going deeper:

“Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”

The apparent acid that Salon responded to in “whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school,” I read, instead, as an attempt to emphasize his own hard-won understanding. It’s not just that along the line Wallace got his ears bored off by some undergraduates’ essays, though there’s a whiff of that. In the recent Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing, Wallace discusses how in college he “snapped to it perhaps late,” thanks to his teachers, that the world “doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.”

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Her emotional compass

June 4, 2014 | 10 Comments

With a great publisher, a page-turner of a story, and an appealing, actively publishing author, Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road is red hot. As I noted in my recent review, her book features two compelling foreground narratives: her romance with a man of the prairie and the fate of the sprawling family farm in western Kansas she has recently inherited.

Bair agreed to a virtual sit-down with Draft No. 4 about her writing process and the fate of the Ogallala Aquifer that features prominently in her book.

An impressive feature of The Ogallala Road is the number of narrative threads you weave elegantly through it—and resolve. These include: your childhood; your family and especially your father; your mid-life love affair with an intellectual cowboy; your son and your parenting of him; different types of farming and the tragic misuse of the Ogallala Aquifer to grow corn on the plains; and your love of wilderness, water, and desert. How in the world did you work out all of this while telling such a forward-moving, compelling foreground narrative?

“I don’t want any struggling memoirists out there to think this came easily. I wrote an essay for the current (May/June) issue of Poets & Writers comparing the way I write to the way my father farmed—doggedly and with determination. When a crop didn’t “make,” he plowed it under and started over. I plowed under many drafts before I understood that the central storylines were my romance with the rancher I met when I went home to research the watershed and my struggle to live up to my father’s first commandment, “Hang on to your land!” The strength of those stories drives the book forward and makes it possible for me to share much else that I care about.”

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Writing Illness

April 7, 2014 | 16 Comments

Illness is a theme of my “Writing Life Stories” class this semester. The students noticed it, not me. But then, four are nursing majors. In one of our texts, Lee Martin’s collection of memoir essays Such a Life, his father’s traumatic accident that cost him his hands casts a shadow across every line; and Martin explores his own boyhood bout with thyroid illness and his middle-age health crisis, an ordeal of corneal abrasion. Running through another of our main texts, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, is her mother’s illness and death from cancer.

Then Thomas Larson visited last week.

He’s got a new book out, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (my review and interview), and my students had read its powerful first quarter, which depicts Larson’s first heart attack and its aftermath. They also read his essay “The Woman on the Corner,” about his grandfather’s suffering and death from cancer and their effect on his grandmother. In introducing Larson, I also prepped the class by mentioning his book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (reviewed), and I played part of a YouTube performance of “Adagio for Strings” with 5.8 million hits: a concert three days after the 9/11 attacks.

My students really wanted to know how Larson can write so personally about himself, his family, his body. Last year, this was also among the first questions for Lee Martin during his visit. Every non-writer wonders about this, I think. And most memoirists. “No one tells everything,” a writer once told me. But writers tend to view their experiences as material, as something to make art from, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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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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