Monday, May 18, 2015

A Few Seconds

I love this quote from an interview with Kevin Brockmeier about his recent memoir (previously mentioned on this blog): A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: a Memoir of Seventh Grade - 

I hope it's not graceless to say that while I was writing the book I also read a pair of memoirs that I found dissatisfyingly sterile or lazy in very specific (and fundamentally opposite) ways: negative examples. One of them was carefully and deliberately composed and seemed wholly faithful to the facts of the writer's life, but failed to offer anything like the lived experience of those facts, and the other was brimming with the lived experience of its writer's life, and was probably faithful to the facts, but was very poorly crafted — passionate, but at the expense of some vibrancy or precision in the phrasing. I did my best to avoid those shortcomings.

So many people focus on "how did you remember all that?!" And instead Brockmeier says the importance for him is emotional resonance. Read more here:

And another couple of quotes, from a different interview, where he more directly addresses questions about his book being on the edge between fiction and  memoir:

While I was working on the book, I found myself describing it interchangeably as either a memoir that employed the tactics of a novel or a novel that employed the tactics of a memoir—and, in fact, the version of the manuscript I submitted to my editor came with a long string of subtitles: a memoir, a novel, a recollective, a nonfiction novel, an autobiographical novel, a novel from life, a kind of memoir, a memoir-novel-thing, and, finally, what is this? True, I organized the book around one particular year of my life, and I tried hard to remain faithful to the way I actually experienced that year, but my stance toward the material was certainly peculiar, and behaving as though your past is unspooling before your senses in all its color and specificity is as much an act of creation as it is of recollection, don’t you think?

I suppose I would say that both memoir and nonfiction attempt to convey the truth, stripped of fabrication, but that memoir is in part about imaginingthe truth and that most other forms of nonfiction are simply about telling the truth. I’m sure there are other distinctions to be drawn, even contradictory ones, but that’s what writing A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip felt like for me: a sustained act of imagining my way into the truth.

That second interview is here:

Thursday, May 14, 2015


I recently finished an amazing memoir by Heather Sellers* called You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know

Ostensibly, the book is about face blindness, but I admire how she handles the trickiness of talking about her mother's undiagnosed schizophrenia and her own undiagnosed condition, mixed with alcoholism in her father and others, and still comes out talking about love.

This is from the afterword, and I love it:
In childhood, it’s our parents who give us standards for experience: “Here’s an inch,” they say.  “And this is a foot.” And a child says, “Thanks! I can make my own yardstick now.” In my family, there wasn’t any kind of calibration demonstration. In the chaos, I struggled to figure out anything at all…
And then one day I went home and turned on the lights, and began to look clearly at my childhood. Gradually I could discern what was, and what was not…More than anything else, laying out the story of how I came to see has brought me to clarity.
But I discovered something else in writing this book, something even more graceful and vital than the elusive “perspective.” In all that darkness, there had been love. What I’d felt all along was not a fantasy, not yet another misinterpretation. I loved my parents. I wasn’t wrong about that. And somehow, against all odds, my parents (especially my mother) were able to bring their versions of affection into our world, into our family, as well. I’d set out to write a book about how we learn to trust our own experience in the face of confusion, doubt and anxiety. What I ended up with is the story of how we love each other in spite of immense limitations…
The discovery that deeply flawed love and deeply flawed vision can coexist has been life-changing for me, and I feel uniquely able to illuminate it…Face blindness helped me to stay open to possibility – motivated me, on the cellular level, to try to know and understand what can’t easily be seen.
I hope that, at least in some small way, this story will help steer others toward clarity, and toward love, in spite of the greatest odds.

I deeply relate to this experience in writing memoir: recognizing love. The moment, the moments, of seeing how it was there, is there, despite it all. It's a powerful recognition, and absolutely necessary. It's harder to write stories out of the link to truth of story than vengeance or vindication, as Laraine Herring recently addressed. But it is possible.

And for me, in my process, the recognition of real love is really the only reason for surviving, and therefore, the only reason for memoir.

*Heather Sellers is also an amazing writing teacher. I cannot get over how pithy, smart and funny her book Page after Page is. Read it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Keeping Memory Alive

There is a book on a technique called proprioceptive writing called Writing the Mind AliveI often think of memoir as writing the memories alive. Despite Annie Dillard's cannibalism quote on the nature of memoir, I find the act can nurture the present by reviving the past. Neither lacks, neither is deprived by bringing both alive.

But last night I had a telling and haunting dream. I was sorting through the basement of our childhood home with my brothers. One had the Legos and some old letters, another had some figurines and tools. I had my old stuffed animals (of which I had legion) and toys. 

As I sorted the animals, some of them became animated. Untouched for decades, moth-eaten kittens and their brethren started to walk across the floor like zombies. More alive than they ever were in any of my fantasy-driven tea parties, at first I was enchanted. But then I went to pick one up and got a small pique of a bite on my hand.

It turned out rats, scorpions and spiders were revitalizing my childhood comfort beasts. My excitement turned to fear and disgust. I disinfected my hands, and I began to use tongs and gloves, laying them down to photograph them for the memories, then stuffing them down a trash compactor or roadside drain.

I can't help but think this is related to writing memoir. Thursday I meet with a feedback group to discuss my latest revision of an essay called Digging In The Dirt, which is about the act of digging up our family graves last fall, braided with musings on writing memoir and how it involves digging of its own. 

I am slow to get out of bed this morning, writing this post from between two very living animals - our cats - and strewn with some current, adult-acquired stuffed animals - adorable but not alive. I am in no hurry, other than the principle of early bird gets the worm. And yet, by lingering, I've been able to give breathing room to this dream. 

What's the worm here? A direct, palpable, single sentence insight I have yet to taste? Or just this: the space to feel, to be with while wide awake, hands on the animate animals that help me keep moving forward into the future, all the while writing about the past.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

We-moir vs Me-moir

Increasingly, I have been teaching to an international audience. One of the things I find interesting about this is how the understanding of what memoir is varies dramatically from culture to culture.

Even within the culture which I am the most familiar (white, middle class American), "memoir" often evokes images of what actually is autobiography: tell-alls by famous folks. Whole life stories are usually reserved for the rich, famous, and accomplished amongst us. But those are not the same as memoir.

Memoir takes a particular period or aspect of anyone's life - known or unknown - and explores it. Memoir, versus autobiography, is more a practice of language, lyricism and expression, than a rote dictation of fact and timeline. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why Write? and Why Write Memoir?

This originated as a closing letter to students in my last round of Mindful Memoir on Shambhala Online. I realized it would be a good "manifesto" and give folks a better sense of my view of the path of writing. So here you are!

Often, people ask me if their writing is good.
"Is it worth it?"
"Do you think I should keep writing?"
"Is it publishable?"

I am afraid I am never able to give the answer I suspect people want to hear:


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shaping Story

I read an interesting article in the March 2015 issue of Harper's Magazine. You can't read the whole thing without a subscription, but here's a link in case you have one. The title is "Giving Up the Ghost - The eternal allure of life after death" and its by Leslie Jamieson. The main bent of it relates to a child psychiatrist researcher who collects stories about children who believe they are experiencing dreams/visions/knowledge from a former life. In particular, she discusses the story of a young boy thought to be a reincarnated WWII fighter pilot.

The thrust in this direction is interesting to me, but only in a passing way. What is most interesting to me is the story that the main family he/the article studies tells their story. Many times during the article, Jamieson, who is clearly also interested in this aspect, points the light back at the projector, so to speak, and glances at the parents, in particular, to see their attitude, note their relationship to the story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip

First of all, just look at this cover.

Looks like a library edition of a sociology text published in the late seventies, right?
It's a brand new memoir, just out in paperback this month. This is the hardcover edition, which, in fact, when holding it in person, feels like a library edition (no separate flyleaf cover, molded cover of colors). But this was the public version published.

I heard about it over here on Jen Louden's blog post about the best memoirs she's read lately.
I was intrigued - I've written about middle school and found it hard to do. What Jen doesn't mention, and what blew me away from page one, is that the whole thing is written in THIRD PERSON (he). First of all, this is relatively unknown in memoir (see some discussion/examples here) - usually it's written in first person (I/me) or at a stretch, second (usually more autobiographical novel form, like Bridget Birdsall's Ordinary Angels). If third person is used at all, it's used in small amounts - like in Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping. It's a stunner to keep it up the whole time.

And yet, for a lot of my students, third person allows a perspective - compassion, understanding - that can't seem to come alive when writing with "I". You can feel that here, in this passage, the most tender of them from this book:
There on the grass, spilling out of a speckled blue egg, is the goo of a half-formed bird, a strange lump of Vaseline with a dark net of veins inside it, connecting a pair of eyes and a tweezerlike beak and the popped red balloons of several tiny organs, one of which must be its heart.

It's not in third person yet. Could be a beautiful, intense description in a vivid memoir. Here's where he harnesses that image with third person, in the lines immediately following:
Kevin can hardly stand to look at it. That this transparent stew of parts, slopping around in the darkness of its shell, is all the bird will ever be gives him an awful gutshot feeling he cannot name, and he knows that if he thinks about it for too long tears will rise to his eyes. He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes.

I know, right? My heart bursts, and in a way, frankly, I don't think it would if it had been written in first person. So so powerful.

But to be clear, this is a memoir about seventh grade in America, in Little Rock Arkansas, and this precious young boy does have, well, less sensitive friends. I hate to break it to you, but this is what comes in the next paragraph:
Out of the blue, Kenneth says to him, "Hey, Kevin, I'm not making fun of you, I"m just curious: Could you fit your dick in that egg?"

I know, right? Trigger-worthy material for anyone who has been verbally bullied. And in-credible. The language, the honesty. Again, as you hear me write about a lot here, the refusal for victim-hood. Kevin clearly marks himself as sensitive, and as subject to bullying, but he also knows his otherlands and sensitivity are important. He bows, he kowtows to the other boys, until he realizes it isn't worth it.

And how does he come to that realization? In the dead center of the book it happens in a completely unprecedented way, and in a way I don't want to reveal too much of here, but needless to say, Brockmeier's fiction-writing past comes fully into fruition in an obvious way, that somehow seems to work.

I also write a lot here about the lines between fiction and memoir, truth and memoir, memory and memoir. Clearly Brockmeier does not remember every single one of these exchanges. And it's obvious by the time you get through the heart center where he converses with his older self (hint hint) that he's functioning on the high end of the fiction/literary spectrum when it comes to memoir. And yet, he is no James Frey. He is not lying to us. The emotional honesty, lack of exaggeration, the accuracy of heart is so pure, so direct and clear that I was along for the ride the entire way.

Approach this book carefully - if seventh grade or its equivalent for you was hard, you will either find this redemptive or impossible to read. And if you are one of very few in the world who passed through adolescence without scars, you will find it anthropologically interesting. Regardless, it's a powerful read.