New Adventures for a New Year

MissouriAutumn

Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.

Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.

Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.

Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.

Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

CNF Conversations: An Interview with Essayist Chris Arthur, Part II

Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings. Iowa City: Shoreline Books, 2012.

This is Part II of a two-part interview with Chris Arthur. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: Like you, I’m obsessed with the writing of ordinary lives. The following passage is marked in pencil and with exclamation marks in my now dog-eared copy of your book: “History is determined by the inky regimen of print. But ordinary lives happen more in the key set by a pencil: fainter, less permanent, more tentative, easily erased. [. . .] I prefer to take the back routes, to look at littler events, the stories of the day to day, of families and their places. These, more than any headline, are what make us who we are.” I write ordinary lives in order to create a trace for those I fear will (unjustly) be forgotten. By contrast, though, I get the sense from your work, and the ways in which you reach so far back (to Neanderthal mourning rituals, for example) that you write with the consciousness that this too, this trace of yours, will fade. Am I right about this?

Chris Arthur: Yes! I think all the traces we leave, all the traces we write, will vanish. According to Buddhist teaching, by which I’ve been more than a little influenced, one of the three marks of existence – that is, one of the three absolutely fundamental features of our world – is what’s termed “anicca,” or impermanence. That strikes me as highly plausible. I think everything passes. Nothing humans do – still less who they are – is permanent, however much we may rail against this unpalatable fact. When I read your question I was reminded of an early essay I wrote entitled “Ne Obliviscaris” (= “lest we forget”). It emphasizes, more explicitly than the other essays do, the way in which anicca claims us all:

If the mind cannot immediately encompass the idea of its own complete annihilation, the fact that soon there will be no one who remembers us, ask what remains – beyond the dumb inheritance of flesh – of the people who were our great-great-grandparents. Or, if that is still too close, ask what now remains upon the shifting network of human memory of the ten-year-old Iron Age girl drowned as she helped her mother collect mussels from along some windswept northern shore. Let her act as symbol for the millions of strangers unknown to us, unremembered by anyone, who have vanished without trace in history’s wake and are recoverable only through the imagination.

Loss and transience are, I think, important motifs that recur throughout my five essay collections. This may make them sound rather sombre, if not grim – but I don’t think they are; I hope they’re not. It’s transience, after all, that underscores a lot of life’s beauty, what helps to make it beautiful.

In “Kyklos” you write about the way your essay has “spiralled away, evolved and developed, meandered unpredictably from its initial point of origin.” A great topic for discussion over the course of my fall workshop has been precisely this aspect of essay writing: the fact that you may not (almost certainly don’t) know where you’re going. Essays wander. They are experiments. They take us off into unexpected territory. And this frustrates beginning writers, because it feels difficult and therefore they begin to believe they’re doing something wrong. I wonder if you could talk about how you write essays. Do they come quickly? Are they hard-fought? Do they come slowly over years? What is the role of rewriting in your work? Do you have faithful friends or editors whom you trust with drafts? Do you have any words of wisdom for those of us stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay (as I am now)?

This reminds me of a piece of wisdom about essays from one of my mentors in the genre, Lydia Fakundiny. She says that if at some point in its composition an essay doesn’t surprise the writer, it probably isn’t worth writing. I agree with that. Of course when I start to write a piece I have some idea of where it’s headed – but not much. The discovery is in the writing and the pieces that have pleased me most are those where surprise is a key element, where insights and connections happen that I couldn’t have predicted when I set out. Yes, absolutely, essays are experiments – I sometimes refer to them as wonderings and wanderings in prose. If they don’t take us into unexpected territory they quickly become tedious. This means there’s a strong element of unpredictability about them, which can be frustrating – because sometimes they don’t work, and because they’re resistant to planning. I think beginning writers are sometimes approaching essays with a one-size-fits-all blueprint in mind for how to structure them. That strikes me as desperately wrong-headed. A useful initial exercise for anyone starting out is to read the Best American Essays series and get a sense of just how varied essays can be.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression, though, from this emphasis I’ve put on unpredictability, surprise and not knowing where a piece is going, that there’s any lack of care or precision in an essay’s composition. Good essays are carefully crafted (and again a reading of Best American Essays soon makes this very apparent).

It takes me weeks to complete an essay and almost every one goes through numerous rewrites as I hone it and fine tune it and try to get it into the shape I want. Very occasionally, a piece will emerge quickly. It seems to fall on the page pretty much in its final form. But that’s rare. Mostly my initial scribbles are crude, tentative, unfinished and miles away from the final version. It takes me a long while to get from inception to completion – and it can be struggle. Readers are oblivious, of course, to the huge amount of work involved in moving from first draft to final finished form – in this as in other genres. That’s the part of writing that’s only visible to the author – and rightly so, I think. I mean, no one wants to look at the rubble of unrefined material and what’s been discarded. Readers want to taste the finished dish, not your raw ingredients. But it can be highly problematic if beginning writers aren’t aware of this dimension and imagine that composition happens in one unrevised burst that’s perfect at the outset. I don’t know anyone who writes like that. Wasn’t it E.B. White who said “The best writing is rewriting”?

I don’t share work in draft form with anyone, but I’m more than willing to listen to suggestions from a handful of journal editors whose judgment I’ve learned to trust. When they suggest changes to what I’ve presented to them as an essay’s final form I’ll often make the recommended change – or, prompted by it, come up with some revision of my own. Once an essay has been published, though, I tend to rule a line under it and not look at it again – otherwise I might want to make yet more changes. Paul Valéry’s famous observation that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” applies to essays too, I think. It’s interesting that Patrick Madden, an essayist whose work I admire, says quite explicitly in one of the essays in his book Quotidiana (2010), “The danger of writing an essay like this: there is nowhere to end.” But for practical purposes you need to draw the line and end things, or abandon things, somewhere – otherwise what you’re working on will eventually start to get in the way of new ideas, new pieces.

You ask about words of wisdom for those stuck inside an unfinished and uncooperative essay. Well, the first thing I’d say is I’m glad I’m not there! Because I have been there frequently and I know how frustrating it can be. When I get into this situation with a piece of work I’ll sometimes give up and trash it – and it’s better to do that before you expend massive amounts of time and energy trying to fix the unfixable. But of course I’m reluctant to abandon something once I’ve started to write it, and it can be well-nigh impossible at some stages to tell if something just needs more revision and refinement or if it’s something that’s terminally flawed. One thing that’s worth considering is whether the recalcitrant piece is two (or three) essays rather than the single one you think you’re operating with. I know I’ve escaped from several tangles by realizing that I was trying to write two essays simultaneously. Separating them and working on them separately solved the problem. It’s also sometimes worth bringing some radical editing to bear. Trying to begin three paragraphs (or pages) in and ditching what goes before that can help to get things moving, or reorganizing the order of the sections. Writing a piece to a strict word limit that’s lower than what you normally work with can occasionally be effective. Sometimes it helps – if there isn’t a deadline looming – to put the piece aside for a few weeks or months and look at it again after a break. I also like to have several pieces of work on the go at the same time, at different stages of completion, so as I can switch mental gears between the different demands of initial sketch, rough draft, first draft and final draft (and all the rewritings and revisions in between). So, if I’m stuck with one piece at one phase of its writing, shifting to another piece at another phase can help. It can also be helpful to move between working on single pieces and a collection. Sometimes when things don’t work it’s just a case of being stale and needing to go out for a walk or a swim or a cycle – a change of scene, getting away from the screen or the page. And of course writers, given what they do, sometimes spend too much time in their own company. Sometimes all an essay that isn’t working needs is some good company and conversation, rather than any kind of further emphasis on the solitary business of trying to get sentences to behave the way you want them to. But sometimes none of these strategies work. I don’t mean to be pessimistic in saying that, I think it’s just being realistic. I’ve certainly experienced the wretched business of a piece of writing that promises to be good, claims lots of time, is something that keeps drawing me back, but in the end I just can’t figure out how to get it into a form I’m happy with. Maybe in order to have success with writing you need to experience a few failures along the way. But here’s hoping your unfinished/uncooperative essay is one that responds to treatment and ends up being something you’re pleased with.

Finally, if an essay looks at a question or a thing or a memory from all angles, then perhaps an essay collection can be said to do the same, but on a bigger scale. Having never written a collection myself, I’m intrigued to hear about the process of putting together such a book. What comes first – the essays or the themes? Do you bring together pieces that seem to interconnect or do you set out to write complementary essays? Or a combination of the two?

The essays come first. Then, as I start to think of them together, themes emerge that make it clear which ones work together. At that point it’s easy enough to decide what to include in a collection and what doesn’t belong there. Likewise the running order of the selected pieces, though it may initially seem hard to call, becomes obvious as I work on the essays together and think of them as a collection, not just as individual pieces. I never set out to write complementary essays. The books evolve out of the essays I write, but I don’t write them with a view to writing a book. When I’m writing an essay, it’s just that particular essay that I’m thinking about.

Richard Chadbourne says something interesting about essays considered singly and put together as a collection. His comment is included in the course of what I think is a good characterization of the genre as a whole:

The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder in its composition, and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.

I’d like to think that my essays are capable of standing on their own – but that the collections work as “higher organisms” so that reading them together in a book sees them acting in the kind of mutually enriching/reinforcing way that Chabdourne has in mind. Incidentally, he goes on to say of the essay that:

Like most poems or short stories it should be readable at a single sitting; readable but not entirely understandable the first or even second time, and re-readable more or less forever.

And he concludes: “the essay, in other words, belongs to imaginative literature.”  I’d agree wholeheartedly with that. (His comments are made in an excellent article, “A Puzzling Literary Genre; Comparative Views of the Essay,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 20 no. 1 (1983), p.149-50.)

A parallel to thinking about making collections of essays is thinking about the different ways in which a selection of those already published in book form might be arranged. I did this with Words of the Grey Wind, of course, but it’s something I’d like to do again. For instance, I’ve several times thought of putting a book together that draws the various “bird essays” I’ve written – “Kingfishers” and the “Last Corncrake” from Irish Nocturnes, “Swan Song” and “Beginning by Blackbird” from Irish Haiku, “Waxwings” from Words of the Grey Wind and three that are in the collection I’m just completing now. That’s the kind of thing that might tempt me to try to write “complementary essays.” Of course the birds themselves are not the main subject. It’s more that they offer a way into what I want to write about. I’d also like to explore arranging essays around the theme of different varieties of looking, grouping them according to whether they look at natural objects, manufactured things, paintings, books, photographs, sayings, or memory. I even have a tentative title and subtitle for such a volume: How to See a Horse and Other Lessons for the (Mind’s) Eye. But I think it’s highly unlikely that any publisher would want to take on something like this, so I suspect these imagined rationales for selection.

“If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead”: On Authors Praising Authors

Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo

The title of this post comes from an essay by Levinovitz called I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs. He quotes George Orwell, who was a strict enemy of blurbs, calling them “disgusting tripe.”

The article is an interesting history of praise of authors by authors. And Levinovitz does a good job cataloguing the sins that the publishing industry has committed (for centuries, it would seem) in the process: corruption, cronyism, hyperbole, and the practice on the part of some publishers to provide sample blurb templates.

As authors become better known, they inevitably find themselves overwhelmed by blurb requests. Often these come from publicists, but some come from authors themselves. Ignoring a publicist is one thing, but turning down a fellow writer can be awkward. Even more awkward is reading a colleague’s book to find that you can’t give it a a positive blurb. Many accomplished authors deal with this by having a no-blurb policy. Others, like Camille Paglia, have publicly called for an end to the practice all together.

In To Blurb or Not to Blurb, l Morris asks the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. The answer appears to be a qualified yes. Praise by an author you know and like may indeed get you to pick up a volume from a display table. That said, Morris also finds that a blurb by an author a reader distrusts or whose work she dislikes may be a turn off.

Last spring I got a note from my publisher that it was time to start seeking out pre-publication praise for Epistolophilia. I swallowed my pride and started to cast about for writers to contact. In some cases, I was met with silence. In others, I received kind notes that explained, with an apology, that the writer had a no-blurb policy. (One answer arrived long after the due date for jacket copy, and though I didn’t get a blurb, I did make a valuable and friendly new contact with whom I continue to correspond. So even this most humbling of processes can bring unexpected rewards.)

Getting turned down didn’t surprise me. Nor did the silences. What surprised me most was getting three sincerely positive blurbs for my book. One of them is from David Bezmozgis. His blurb for Epistolophilia: “An intelligent, humane, and noble book that rescues from obscurity an intelligent, humane, and noble woman. It stands as a testament to the power of reading, writing, compassion, and extraordinary courage.” Wow. That even impressed my publicist.

Is the process of blurbing cynical and corrupt? Sometimes, yes. But it is also a way for established writers to help unknown ones.

The first time this occurred to me was when I heard Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries) talk at the AWP Conference last year. When Roddy Doyle blurbed his book (writing, “You don’t just read The Adderall Diaries; you fall right into them. You read as if you are a few words behind the writer, trying to catch up, to find out what happens, to yell at him that he’s doing a great job. And he is. It’s a brilliant book.”), he changed the game for Elliott. Far from a cynical move, such a blurb is a gift.

The same is true of Bezmozgis. He didn’t have to read my book, or even answer my email. He didn’t know me or owe me anything, and goodness knows, he has enough on his plate. But he read it, found it valuable, and said so. It was an act of generosity that I’ll never forget.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to do the same for someone else.

Your thoughts on blurbs?

[Photo: Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Life-blood: Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery. Harper Collins, 2011.

Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a deeply humane account of chimpanzee lives, and a troubling testament to how monstrously we’ve treated our closest cousins on this planet. The book tells the story of thirteen former research chimpanzees living out their days at a sanctuary located on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, a stone’s throw away from where I live. Westoll was invited to live at the Fauna Foundation for a time, and to write the biographies of its primate residents. The framing narrative presents the author learning the ropes of chimp care: the weekly habitat wash that involves complex herding of chimps from one room to the next and the sanitation of feces-encrusted toys; the complexities of medication-laced smoothie production; and the annual fumigation of the Chimp House called “Operation Cucarachas,” when human and primate residents alike live outdoors.

One chimpanzee named Tom sits squarely at the heart of the book. A kind of old soul, Tom seems to change everyone he meets, whether human or chimp.

At Fauna, Tom can often be found slumped against a wall, one hand clinging to the caging above or resting on a windowsill. In this position he looks like he’s slumped on a sofa in a seniors’ home midway through slipping his arm around his sweetheart. When Tom walks on all fours, when he claps to get Gloria’s [his caregiver’s] attention, or simply when he’s lunching, the calmness of his movements suggests he knows all about time – how it works, how it can ravage you, how best to reconcile yourself to these facts. Something about Tom puts the lie to the old cliché time heals all. (29-30)

Tom is the face of Fauna Sanctuary and of the wider movement to protect and provide sanctuary to chimpanzees, and Westoll argues that the footage of him climbing a tree for the first time since his capture affected US Congress Representatives so deeply that they moved forward with legislation to protect great apes. The book is dedicated to Tom.

The tragedy of the chimpanzee, Westoll tells us, is that they are simultaneously so similar to and so different from humans. Chimpanzees and humans share all but a fraction of our respective DNA, yet chimpanzees are creatures with distinctly non-human social rites and needs. Of course, when chimps are raised by humans, they disconnect with fundamental aspects of their own species, and become more like humans. All the chimps at the fauna sanctuary occur somewhere along this chimp-human continuum. Regis loves to paint and listen to music, Rachel carries her gorilla baby dolls with her everywhere she goes, and Toby feels handsome when wearing a scrunchie around his wrist. But as quirky and sweet as Westoll’s descriptions of each chimp’s particularities are, his accounts of the horror that these animals have experienced and witnessed is unflinching. He tells of “knock-downs” with dart guns, countless surgeries and recoveries without pain killers, of years-long solitary confinement in cages suspended above lab floors, of viral infections then experimentation with vaccines. Westoll deftly tells the history of chimpanzee captivity, breeding programs and research. He weighs their outcomes and benefits to human health against the undeniable suffering undergone by its subjects. In the end, he comes out squarely against such research and in favour of chimpanzee sanctuary for all remaining research subjects. It’s hard to read this book and not to come out with the same conclusions.

I must admit that I began reading The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary because Andrew is a friend. It’s not generally the sort of book that I read, and I wondered about the appropriateness of posting a Life-blood review about it, given that its subjects were animals.

But I needn’t have hesitated.

Above all, Westoll demonstrates that these chimpanzee lives matter. That these thirteen strong and troubled creatures deserve the care and dignity that any survivor does, because they carry similar scars and memories. And that their stories too deserve to be told.

[Photo: e_monk]

CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

*

Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading

Louise DeSalvo’s List: Criteria of a Completed Memoir

One of my first Life-blood posts was a short review of Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “A Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” I came across that piece in my search for some frank and honest discussion by women about mothering and writing. My son was still very little (around two), and I was struggling to balance my writing life with the demands of raising a toddler.  I wanted to know what older, wiser mother-writers had to say about the matter. DeSalvo’s essay is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject.

Since, then, I’ve learned more and more about Louise DeSalvo. In her long career, she’s transformed herself from a Virginia Woolf scholar to renowned memoirist. Her books include Vertigo, Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, and Writing as a Way of Healing. She has long taught writing (specifically the craft of memoir) at Hunter College in New York.

This is all to say that DeSalvo keeps one of the best blogs I’ve seen on writing as craft, process, and a way of life. Her most recent post, dated May 3, 2011, examines the mechanics of memoir. In it, she recounts a conversation with a person she “does her best to avoid” who scoffs at the idea that memoir too has a form that successful writers must take account of. In response to this individual’s challenge (and scorn), she comes up with a list of twenty criteria of a completed (successful) memoir. Here’s a taste, taken from her list of 20:

1.  A good memoir tells a good story; it deals with the issue of cause and effect in life either overtly or covertly; when things make no sense, that is grappled with as well.

2.  A good memoir “puts you there”; it is vivid, and specific.  It is cinematic, in some sense – the reader can “see” what’s happening.

3.  A good memoir shows an awareness of time – the time during which the experience takes place; the effect of the passage of time; how time helps us see things in new ways.  There is emphasis on both personal history, and on the historical context in which these events take place.  The memoir keeps the reader abreast of when the events are occurring.

Visit Louise DeSalvo’s blog for seventeen more. You won’t regret it.

[Photo: miss niki chan]

Call for Submissions: “CNF Conversations”

I’d like to start a new section here called “CNF Conversations.” (CNF stands for Creative Nonfiction). I propose to do post shortish interviews with authors of recently published works of creative nonfiction: biographies, autobiographies, memoir, collections of essays, mixed genre, and whatever else, as long as it’s nonfiction.

I’m looking for fine writing.

To get a better idea of the sorts of texts that might fit the bill, please browse the “Life-blood” category.

If you are a writer of nonfiction and have a recent book about which you’d like me to consider chatting with you (by email), please get in touch through the Contact page.

[Photo: timojazz]

The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

Life-blood: Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diairies: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, 2009).

“. . . only a fool mistakes memory for fact”Stephen Elliott, in the disclaimer to his memoir.

I decided to buy this book after I heard its author speak at the AWP writers’ conference in Washington. He stood up in a t-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms and, with charming and self-deprecating humor, offered some really good insights into the mechanics of writing. If nothing else, this guy had charisma. I wanted to know more, so I ordered The Adderall Diaries. I’m glad I did.

It’s a hard book to summarize: the stitch that holds it all together is an exploration of ambiguous confession.

Elliott starts the book: “My father may have killed a man.” He learns this after reading an unpublished memoir that his father (a failed writer) sends him. He then goes on a hunt to determine the truth of the confession, combing newspapers, checking county death registries, and so on. The search is inconclusive.

This first curious confession reproduces itself, but in slightly different form, when a casual acquaintance of Elliott’s confesses to having killed “eight and a half” people, the last of whom he claims was his lover Nina. Though most of the supposed victims of this would-be serial murder can be accounted for (his confessions are false), Nina is indeed missing. Her husband, not the would-be serial murderer who confessed to her murder, is charged with killing her. Elliott follows the trial of Hans Reiser, and we follow him doing so.

This is where it gets really interesting.

I once heard Michael Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) say in an interview that he knew he was on to something good when it made him feel uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I work on my third book, and try to find the courage to tell some truths and find the edge of what I’m comfortable with. Elliott, for one, has gone to the edge of comfort and often goes beyond it.

Now, the murder confession is but a framing device in this book. More than true crime, it resembles a journey through Stephen Elliott’s mind and his past: addiction, overdose, homelessness, petty crime, suicide attempts, masochistic sex, gogo dancing, familial loss and estrangement, and, finally, a coming to writing.

In the end, the book itself constitutes a way out of pain for its author, but is by no means a cure: “I hear doors open but can’t see them. I move forward without a path. I am not sad all the time but I will always be sad sometimes. [. . .] Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect” (198).

Given the subject matter (murder, sadomasochism, addiction), a reader might be forgiven for expecting an icky memoir that tells too much, perpetuates voyeurism, and titillates through disturbing imagery. But this is not at all what I found.

Stephen Elliott’s book impressed me on so many levels. The writing, first of all, is superb. It’s simple and clipped and economical, so that when he describes harrowing scenes of suffering (mostly his own), there is no melodrama or self-pity. Where sex is concerned, the tone is frank, the details sparing. He manages to give insight into the dynamics and emotional payoff of S/M where the narrative necessitates, and then he moves on.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I found Elliott’s portrayal of women amazingly complex and affection-filled. This is rare in a book that explores (if peripherally) sexual power relations, and I suspect that it’s successful in its portrayal of women because Elliott has thought more carefully about sexual dynamics than most. In a scene towards the end of the book, the author’s father mockingly suggests that a woman walking by on the street might make a good dominatrix for his son. It’s a moment that we could pass over without comment from the author. Women, after all, are judged and denigrated and sexualized in public like this every day. But Elliott corrects his father, saying that dominant women rarely look dominant. There is more to most of us, he stresses, than meets the eye.

Elliott’s book ends on a quasi-hopeful note, but the message here is that life and writing are a process. In the final pages, he is still snorting Adderall (speed), if less than before, and his S/M continues. Both ostensibly help him write (and live), so it’s hard to distinguish his poison from its antidote.

Maybe that’s the point. Or one of them, anyway.

Ultimately, Elliott’s book is about survival, getting better, getting worse, keeping going, and about lies, truth, and how the two can sometimes be indistinguishable. It’s about writing as a life practice and healing mechanism. Importantly, it also proves that even the most confessional text can be art.

I found this book hard to put down.

You might too.

Try it.

[Photo: hipsxxhearts]

Life-blood: WG Sebald

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (New Directions, 1996 [English translation]).

And the last remnants memory destroys
— Epigraph to Chapter One


I read this book over several months, putting it down then picking it up again weeks later. It’s a meandering and meditative text that gestures toward a point about memory, pain, and shame, rather than declaring it outright and obviously. Maybe my reading of it mirrored its style, wandering as I did. And even though I finished The Emigrants a while ago, I’ve had a hard time finding a way to sit down and write a quick account of it.

This is because Sebald’s work defies summary, genre, and the very categories of fiction and nonfiction.

I read Sebald, a longtime professor of literature and translation in Norwich, England, for the first time when I lived in Cincinnati some eight years ago. At the time, I was finishing up the writing of my first book, in which I’d been experimenting with various techniques in a nonfiction text, and I was fearful and uneasy about what I’d written.

It must have been my husband who bought Sebald’s Austerlitz: he’s always been more in tune with new veins in writing than I, but often has less patience for narrative, and tends to read prefer philosophy and criticism. So, even though Sean never finished Austerlitz, I gobbled it up. The book landed on my bedside table at exactly the right time, just when I needed someone to confirm that my own instincts on experimenting in nonfiction were valid. Sebald did that and more.

For me, Sebald was a revelation and a revolution.

The Emigrants, Sebald’s first book that appeared in English translation (he wrote in German), examines the lives of four individuals (Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber) who, like the author (born in Germany in 1944), left their German or Germanized homes. In doing so, they, like their author, become strangers in the world.

The narrative’s characters are quirky and tragic, and through his interactions with them or their memories, and in his tracing of their paths through emigration, Sebald examines broader questions of foreignness and belonging, memory and shame, despair and adaptation, and of what remains of the old once a new home has been adopted.

World War II and the Holocaust return as constant themes in Sebald’s work. But while Austerlitz examines the Kindertransport, whereby many thousands of unaccompanied Jewish children were brought to England from Prague, and thus survived, the war and its horrors are a more oblique presence in The Emigrants.

There is the German-Jewish character of Max Ferber, that of Henry Selwyn whose roots lie in Lithuania, and the almost passing references to the dead who lost their lives in Nazi camps, but questions of Jewishness, of anti-Semitism, collaboration, or perpetration remain under the surface like an ache.

For the emigrants of his book, as for the author himself, home has become a problem and a memory. Permanently on the move, forever displaced, and no longer at ease anywhere (Sebald once said that his ideal post would be at a hotel in Switzerland), both the author and his characters embody rootlessness and restlessness.

Sebald started writing in his signature melancholy, calm voice late in life: only in his forties. And like so many greats, he was taken far too early. He died in 2001 in a car accident at the age of 57.

If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend it. Perhaps it will prove revelatory for you as well.

[Photo: cavale]