Thomas Larson on the body’s honesty.
A memoir is a work of literature that focuses on the meaning and intensity of a phase or a singular relationship in the author’s life—unresolved feelings for a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend; coming to terms with a loss, an illness, a death; remembering a significant phase like childhood or adolescence or a period like college in which the writer was challenged or changed.—Thomas Larson’s lecture “Finding Ourselves: Writing Memoir and Jungian Individuation”
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. Many beginning writers wonder about this, I think. And all memoirists. “Nobody 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.
Last Wednesday, Larson read a passage from The Sanctuary of Illness about his older brother’s decline from heart disease, and then I kicked off the Q&A by asking him about revealing one’s and others’ private matters. “It’s always a bit difficult,” Larson confessed. “Because I’m remembering my brother, who’s dead. Who I talked to on the phone. If you don’t feel that, you’re not here. It’s a reason to write. . . .
“I don’t think of memoir as an act of revenge,” he added, “but as an act of communication.”
The subject wouldn’t die, entwined as it is with memory—that shape-shifting muse, the storm- and breeze-breeding equator of our emotional weather. Facts, Larson said, are less important than one’s emotional memory. A student asked him how he summons memory. Larson rolled up one of his shirt-sleeves, as if baring a vein to give blood:
The sensory is the most honest part of me. My body does not lie. The words are in your body. In smell, in your fingertips. I can feel my father’s touch and the stubble of his cheek. What’s hard is to occupy the past in the present. Writing details is how you occupy the past.
Never go in with your message and meaning foreknown, he advised. Look instead for what’s unresolved in you. Maybe it’s when you were ill and let down your guard, had no energy for your usual armor.
Three days later, a few miles from campus, Larson attracted 16 patrons of the Old Worthington Library to his two-hour workshop on writing about illness. “The canvas is massive,” he told them in the library’s meeting room. “And it can also be about caretaking someone with an illness. With both, there’s going to be a relationship. Memoir writers are not just interested in the ‘I’ or the self, but about how they fit into the world.”
Wisely, I think, he avoided having everyone in the room discuss, in turn, the particulars of their illness story. But he did give us ten prompts about illness—including our main characters, our story’s high and low points, our envisioned audience, and our motive—and then he paired us off to share. Attendees ranged in age from mid-thirties to mid-eighties, and I was surprised by how well-read they seemed in the memoir genre. At least some were also veterans of other writing workshops or classes. Few are virgins anymore, I guess, in the memoir genre.
In the second hour, Larson read aloud from and we discussed excerpts from two fine, divergent illness memoirs: Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death, Anatole Broyard’s cerebral, wry, expository account of his battle with terminal prostate cancer; and A Three-Dog Life, Abigail Thomas’s spare, sensory, scenic depiction of living with her husband’s traumatic brain injury.
Two stories of illness. Such different effects. Probably the same intent. Look at me. How odd. How strange and unforeseen and interesting. What happened. What happened to me. It can happen to you. Something will. Let me enlighten. Just a bit. It may help you, my gift.
My workshop partner told me about falling down her basement stairs. Being treated for a concussion. Not what she had. A flawed and injured artery in her neck was it, the hidden issue. About two weeks later, as she sat in bed watching TV with her husband, still with that killer headache from the fall, the left side of her body went numb. Trying to talk at the emergency room. Alarmed faces. They saw, they knew. A stroke. At age 40. It took nine months of therapy for her to talk again. Life had to continue in her busy blended family. Two kids of her own at home, three of her husband’s.
“I’m not the same,” she later told the class. “I’ll never be the same.”
When it had come time for me to share with her, I’d had little to say. I lacked urgency, which felt like lacking a crucial belief. Because I’d written about my physical injuries already. Enough already. I was there to watch Tom Larson teach. But of course I hadn’t written it all. Nobody tells everything. What did I not tell, however, that was important? For another story? A different story? A story not about getting hurt, though that’s there, but about what it revealed? About a relationship, say? Do we ever finish telling any key story?
As for anyone’s physical suffering becoming plot: “It’s not the thing itself,” Larson warned. “It’s how we respond to it.”