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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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Life-blood: Desirae Matherly

Desirae Matherly, “The Denser of the Two.” Southern Humanities Review 43:2 (Spring 2009), 129-39.

It could be that this sickness of mine is a type of shout from my body. My body groans with the stretching ligaments, the pressure of building gas against my abdomen, the swelling of my uterus. My vessel creaks. We swell together and I am unsure which is the denser of the two — the container or its contents. (136)

An essayist friend sent me “The Denser of the Two,” because he thought I’d like it, and because he found echoes of my work in it. After reading it, I can see why.

The piece examines all my recent obsessions: morning sickness, the process of growing a body inside you, the strange sensation in pregnancy of being both one and two simultaneously, the weirdly solitary and communal experience of labour, and the ways in which birth and death are  separated only by a shadow.

Desirae Matherly’s essay is brave and sophisticated. Impressionistic, poetic and enigmatic, the text resists the temptation to spell out its connections between ships and bodies, morning sickness and the totality of human suffering, and survivors of an Antarctic expedition and a growing fetus. Instead, it raises questions quietly and almost slyly by juxtaposing images and fragments of Thomas Aquinas, Jean-Paul Sartre and classic Buddhist texts.

The author asks: Where does one soul end, and another begin? At what point does a baby stop being part of its mother? What should we make of human suffering? What is a body’s worth?

There’s nothing like morning sickness to make you appreciate how fantastic simply feeling normal feels. And there’s nothing like pregnancy to remind you that, like it or not, you are a physical being.  And this, at least in part, is what Matherly’s essay is about: coming to terms with an ever-changing, destined-to-die body that nevertheless wants to go on and on and on. “If discussion of death alarms those who enjoy their lives,” she writes, “then we have become too convinced of our temporary vitality” (138).

The most poignant moment of the essay, for me, is when Matherly admits: “When I studied philosophy long ago, my body began to repulse me. Before that time, in high school, my body felt like an enemy. I always resented being born female, even back into my early childhood” (134).

Matherly, it seems, learns to accept the body that is hers, in its change and instability and even decline. She learns to want to live, despite everything, including incomprehensible suffering, for as long as possible: “[My son’s] unfolding and unmapped future signals to me that my own journey is not over, but that I have only now become accustomed to the motion of life, its series which surrounds me, as vast and changeable as the sea.”

“The Denser of the Two” is not for the lazy student. It requires its readers to work, but it’s a rare pleasure to read something so daring and original on a theme too often diminished by cliché.

You can find this essay in any good academic library, or follow the link below to get to the homepage of the the Southern Humanities Review.

[Photo: Ferrocarril Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – Lack Of Manhood (overlay); Originally uploaded by 3WME]

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Life-blood: Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father (Bloomsbury, 1997 [1996]).

I read this book on the recommendation of a colleague who thought it could be useful to my work. She was right: I found that it spoke to me on many levels.

I hadn’t expected to have so much in common with Mary Gordon.

Gordon’s book tells the story of her attempt to reconstruct her father’s life and identity through visits to archives and libraries, by wading through murky memories, and taking by both real and imaginary voyages.

She tells us that she connected to her father first and foremost through writing, and that she had become a writer because of him. But her daughterly love and pride get disturbed when she begins to learn unanticipated truths: that her father was both a Lithuanian Jew (who converted to Catholicism) and an anti-Semite, not an American-born, Harvard-educated once-married Catholic, as she had been told. Though he had indeed been a writer, his texts reveal he was not a very good one. His life revealed that he was not a very good husband. Certainly not a very good Jew.

This is a very honest book, so much so that at times it made me uncomfortable. As I read one bald truth after another, I wondered where Gordon got the courage to reveal so much about the things her father believed, about the lies he told, about family secrets. I wondered whom this book was for and who would care.

But just as I asked the question, I began to care about this family. This moment coincided with the author’s offering up of a portrait of her mother: a woman crippled by polio in childhood and struck by senility late in life Gordon’s discussions of her mother’s body struck me as particularly poignant:

For many years, the only adult female body I saw unclothed was, it must be said, grotesque, lopsided, with one dwarf leg and foot and a belly with a huge scar, biting into and discoloring unfirm flesh. She’d point to it and say, “This is what happened when I had you.” (221)

This mother is a phantom presence throughout the book (a shadow woman of sorts), the third member of the family, overlooked and largely unloved. But with her introduction, the narrative somehow fell into place for me, and the book began to sing, if sadly.

It was then that I started to find all sorts of common threads between my own life and work and Mary Gordon’s.  I began thinking about my own Lithuanian father who died too young, about my posthumous discoveries about his life, about my own processes of reconciliation with the dead, my relationship to Catholicism, to the country my parents left behind as children, and — most unexpectedly — about my relationship to my own mother and her poor body, battered by multiple sclerosis.

I read this book as I was starting to map out the first chapters of my current project, a family history of sorts. Gordon’s baldness forced me to ask: How much do I dare to tell? How much do I have the right to reveal? What do my parents’ stories have to do with the story of my grandmother that I’m writing?

Mary Gordon’s book is, at least in part, about learning to love someone with all their faults. It’s about forgiveness and acceptance, but without being too pretty or tidy. And (something that surprised me), it managed to speak to me on a most fundamental level by reflecting back my own story of intimacy, familiarity, and discomfort.

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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Malahat Review — Creative Non-Fiction Prize

Creative Non-Fiction Prize

The Malahat Review, Canada’s premier literary magazine, invites entries from Canadian, American, and overseas authors for its Creative Non-Fiction Prize. One award of $1,000 CAD is given.

2010 Deadline

The deadline for the 2010 Creative Non-Fiction Prize is August 1, 2010 (postmark date).

Guidelines

The entry must be between 2,000 and 3,000 words. Please indicate word count on the first page. Please double space your work.
No restrictions as to subject matter or approach apply. For example, the entry may be personal essay, memoir, cultural criticism, nature writing, or literary journalism.

Entry fee required:
$35 CAD for Canadian entries
$40 US for American entries
$45 US for entries from Mexico and outside North America.

Entrants receive a one-year subscription to The Malahat Review for themselves or a friend.

Entries previously published, accepted, or submitted for publication elsewhere are not eligible.

Entrants’ anonymity is preserved throughout the judging. Contact information (including an email address) should not appear on the submission, but along with the title on an enclosed separate page.

No submissions will be accepted by email.

The winner and finalists will be notified via email.

Entrants will not be notified about the judges’ decisions even if an SASE is enclosed for this purpose.

The winner and finalists will be announced on the Malahat web site, with the publication of the winning entry in The Malahat Review’s Winter 2010 issue, and in Malahat lite, the magazine’s quarterly e-newsletter, in October 2010.

No entries will be returned, even if accompanied by an SASE.

Send entries and enquiries to:

The Malahat Review
University of Victoria
P.O. Box 1700
Stn CSC
Victoria, B.C. V8W 2Y2
Canada

Email: malahat@uvic.ca
Telephone: 250-721-8524
Fax: 250-472-5051

Entrants wishing to pay by credit card may download and complete our Credit Card Payment Form then enclose it with their entries.

Previous Creative Non-Fiction Prize Winners:

2009  Judy Copeland
2008 Joel Yanofsky (Won Silver for Personal Journalism at the 32nd Annual National Magazine Awards)
2007 Vaia Barkas

[Photo: cgkinla]

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Life-blood: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. Harper Collins, 1995.

I wish I’d read The Blue Jay’s Dance a year and a half ago, when I was trying to rebuild my writerly self eighteen months after the birth of my son. In a flurry of frustration and aloneness, I read everything I could find on writing and mothering: Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath. For some reason, Louise Erdrich’s book never made it onto my horizon before now.

It’s the book I was looking for back then.

The Blue Jay’s Dance tells about writing and mothering in the first year of a baby’s life. Erdrich had six (six!) children when she wrote this book. The first three were adoptive kids who came with her husband into their marriage, the second three were all girls she birthed. The baby in the book is a composite of this latter trio.

Erdrich’s text shows how writers work: it stages the stillness, quiet, and observation that a life of writing requires, and the walks, musings and meanderings needed for story-telling, invention and problem-solving. She watches insects, flowers, and birds with an interest that is both scientific and poetic, and writes about the small and everyday in way that is absorbing. She describes the pleasure of nursing and the pain of birthing without cuteness, gore or cliché. And she tells with refreshing honesty how writing and love are occasionally at odds:

Women writers live rose nights and summer storms, but like the blue-eyed jumping spider opposite our gender, must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured. We are wolf spiders, carrying our babies on our backs, and we move slowly but with more accuracy. We learn how to conserve our energy, buy time, bargain for the hours we need. (143)

The Blue Jay’s Dance is an intensely bittersweet book. It’s about birth, but also about death – of grandparents and beloved animal companions. It’s about how time goes too fast, and how we both want our kids to grow and to stay little forever. It’s about the realization that when your baby is big, you will be old, and about how every minute gained for writing and work comes at a price. It’s about parenting with a lover and colleague, and staying strong and unified when it’s easier to divide and resent.

I didn’t want this book to end. When it did, curiosity got the better of me, so I did a quick  search to find out more about Erdrich.

It was devastating.

This woman, so positive, brilliant and balanced, and who thrice came through the Year-One-Firestorm of Motherhood intact, had the carpet pulled out from under her soon after The Blue Jay’s Dance was published. First: divorce from Michael Dorris (the dissolution of the “literary love affair of the century”), ugliness surrounding alleged sexual abuse of the adoptive children by Dorris, and finally Dorris’s suicide.

All this fills with me with a deep sense of compassion and admiration for Erdrich who has continued, despite all of this, to work amazingly well.

Just last year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

You can read Michael Dorris’s obituary in Salon.com here. It sheds some light on the writer’s marriage and collaboration with his wife, as well as on Erdrich’s career.

[Photo of Louise Erdrich at Darmouth by Joseph Mehling]

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