The Memoir Dilemma 


My current dilemma about finishing my memoir, besides the serial procrastination, is that the people I write about will not like that in the process of exposing myself, I will expose them too. My mother may not like what I have shared that makes her appear self-centered, and my husband might be embarrassed to read what I was really thinking so many years ago. It’s my story, I tell myself, my truth, but that argument feels weak against the cold of the back of a shoulder turned against you. In any event, I think any writer who writes about their life and their family has to face this fear in order to write the story they feel they have to tell. Lee Gutkind offers this:

Writing true stories about family goes beyond the normal complications of writing creative nonfiction, because you are digging deep into your own roots and personal foundations. Once you begin to do this, you are relinquishing, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, the safety and security of your house and home and family. Your parents, spouse, siblings, cousins, and everyone else may continue to comfort and love you, but they will probably never again trust you completely. They will always wonder what you are going to write about them next.

Of course, the other side of the equation is that they might also treat you with a bit more care and respect because of the power of your pen. So, it’s not all bad.

Bottom line, if you write about your family there is a risk, and the decision is if it is a risk worth taking.

Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

I was recently on a plane for the better part of a day, and, finding myself with a roomy three square feet of free space, I decided to return to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is a nonfiction work that “…attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.” Diamond writing is clear and engaging, and I found the subject fascinating. However, it took me over a year to finish.

 

I initially read at a brisk pace, but I didn’t make it far into the book before I stopped reading. I was distracted by work, social obligations, all the usual stuff.  There were always errands to run or one more email to send. Dinner was on the stove, and I didn’t want to start reading only to stop twenty minutes later. A day without reading it turned to a week and into months.

 

I enjoyed Diamond’s exploration of the history of civilization. So why couldn’t I sit down and finish the book? It would be too easy to say that I was too busy, that every single thing I did was too important to be replaced with reading. That wouldn’t be true though. I could’ve gone to bed with Guns, Germs, and Steel instead of my smart phone, or I could’ve read it in lieu of browsing the internet. I could have made the time. But these other forms of entertainment were easier. Turning on the TV only takes one button and then the light and sound can wash over you. With smart phones and computers almost everywhere, you have nearly unlimited entertainment at your fingertips. I would be lying if I said after dinner I’ll crack open War and Peace, and I know I’m not the only one who will take the easy road. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I know I’m depriving myself of great literature, stories, and ideas by avoiding the ‘harder’ works. There’s a feeling of fulfillment you get when completing a long, difficult story that doesn’t come with finishing the latest two hundred page pop fiction novel.

 

I’m not claiming that a longer story is inherently better. Some of the best works I’ve read were short. But in avoiding long fiction (and nonfiction, as in the case of Guns, Germs, and Steel) you do yourself a disservice. You would never read Infinite Jest or The Count of Monte Cristo (two of my favorites).

 

I plan to devote more time to tackling involved works of fiction and nonfiction. When the reading gets tough, when I have to look up yet another word, I’ll keep going. The remote may be nearby, but ten more pages first.

Moving

The site is moving to a self-hosted site. Subscriptions will be going along too. If you are an email subscriber, then you will continue to get updates. If you are a wordpress.com follower, new notices will show up in reader, but no email notices will be sent unless you sign up at the new site to receive email notices. The site new site should be up and running within a week.

Thank you for reading

“A Big Empty”-short story by contributor Rhonda Browning White

Rhonda’s short story, “A Big Empty,” is up over at Bellevue Literary Review.

We hadn’t talked since we left our West Virginia homeplace over two hours ago, both of us teary-eyed, too afraid to put words into the space already overfull of emotion. Every now and then, I’d hear Romie sniffle in the seat beside me, and she’d squeeze my knee, or I’d squeeze hers. It was the only way to say what we felt. It surprises me then that she speaks when we’re partway through East River Mountain Tunnel.

“Look at them cracks,” she says. “You think it’s even safe to drive through here?”

– See more at: http://blr.med.nyu.edu/content/archive/2014/fall/bigempty#sthash.Jrb1wcEx.dpuf

An invitation from Ruminate magazine to the Why the Writing Works community

Call for Submissions:

RUMINATE Magazine is currently accepting submissions for our 2014 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize with final judge Larry Woiwode. Along with publication in our Spring 2015 issue, the winner and runner-up will be awarded $1500 and $200, respectively. There is a $20 entry fee, which includes a complimentary copy of the Spring 2015 issue. The deadline for submissions is October 27th, 2014. To read the complete contest guidelines and to submit, please visit our website (http://www.ruminatemagazine.com/submit/contests/fiction/).

Character Complexity in Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by Matthew McEver

Before the rise of the post-Vietnam Western, the fictional Western was considered light entertainment, with coloring book characterizations–black hats and white hats. Ron Hansen, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (1983), tells the story of how Jesse James was assassinated by a member of his own gang. In writing the novel, Hansen had to contend with over a century of folklore, where Jesse James is revered as an antihero, a Confederate sympathizer continuing the Civil War, and Bob Ford is a spineless traitor. Hansen, though, pushes back against the folklore and challenges the oversimplifications by rendering emotionally complex characters.

The core of Assassination is how Robert Ford idolizes the mythic outlaw Jesse James, yet kills him. Hansen’s Bob Ford is a self-described nobody who believes that he is destined to be a legendary gunslinger. Bob becomes James’ protege, but eventually realizes that if he were the man who killed Jesse James, then “America will know who Bob Ford is” (153).

What further complicates matters is the complexity of Jesse James, a villainous yet complicated soul. Jesse is a one-man show, and his robberies often involve understated hijinks. Following the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse leaves the engineer a dollar “so you can drink to the health of Jesse James tomorrow” (27). After robbing an Iron Mountain Railroad train, Jesse hands the conductor an envelope containing “an exact account” of the robbery so that the newspapers may report the incident accurately (48).

Repeatedly, Hansen offsets Jesse James’ violent nature against his more redemptive qualities. In one chapter, Jesse dresses as Santa Claus for children. In another, he shoots a man in the head. In another, he’s a Methodist choir director.

Not to oversimplify, the emotional power of the novel is grounded in, namely, two methods. One, Hansen’s telling is colored by another narrative, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, which lends an emotional component to the text and renders Jesse James as messianic. Second, Hansen creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Hansen recreates an experience for us somewhat analogous to that of Jesse James’ contemporaries. Like them, we are simultaneously taken in and appalled by this false-messiah. Like them, we are enamored with psychopaths.

Where your own writing is concerned, here’s a helpful anecdote and appropriate conclusion. When researching and writing the novel, Ron Hansen determined that “no hard facts, however inconvenient” would be dismissed and “no crucial scenes, however wished for,” would be turned to ends more pleasing to the modern reader (Afterward to Assassination 11). Characters don’t march in line and do our bidding. No matter what we wish for them, they must be who they are. They must, as ugly as this may be, tell the truth not only about themselves, but also about us.

Hansen, Ron. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New York: Harper, 1983. 

A post worth re-posting

The Power of the Adjective

Maybe it’s the grammar teacher in me that can appreciate a well-placed adjective and the omission of useless adverbs. I enjoy reading books by writers who can use specific language to strike just the right tone and create just the right image. Alexandra Fuller is one of these writers. Fuller uses word choice to make her unique memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even more interesting to read.

Fuller tells the story of growing up in a white farming and ranching family in South Africa during the late seventies and early eighties. Fuller is the observer of the African landscape, her family, and the native African community around her. Her observations are spot-on, especially the ones that appeal to the five senses. She shares hard times, losses, and intimate moments with family members by using just the right words to handle each recollection. There are many beautiful lines in the book that I re-read three or four times to marvel at her seeming ability to describe anything and everything with such precision. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, is Fuller’s use of compound adjectives that display her dexterity with words and her gift for description.

Instead of saying the pale yellow light flickered, she writes, “flickering-yellow light (4).” She remembers as a child she and her sister getting “the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps (6).” She watches her father use his “after-dinner pipe” and observes her mother in a “broken-chicken-neck sleep.” She tells the reader that her mother has “thick, wavy, shoulder-length bottle-auburn hair.” When she arrives back from a trip she is relieved to “climb off the stale-breath, flooding-toilet-smelling plane into Africa’s hot embrace (287).” In one scene she details a visit from missionaries. “The springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves up on the visitor’s laps, and the missionaries fight them off in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way (82).” The word play with hyphenated words turned into descriptive adjectives is a feature of her writing that also adds to this writer’s distinct voice.

When I teach adjectives again with my eighth grade grammar students, I will definitely have fun sharing examples from Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight.

Lessons and Locutions

By Liat Faver

Books that are written to instruct can be dull and repetitive. Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse are aware of this, and they have written a book about writing that piques creativity. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology contains well-structured lessons followed by an anthology that houses a wealthy store of contemporary authors and interviews that keep the reader enthralled and amazed.

The section on craft discusses form, description, dialogue, style, and revision. We learn that we may separate creative nonfiction “into two rough piles: ‘information’ and ‘idea.’” And we may toy with these two piles in degrees of nuance and revelation to whatever effect we wish because “what writers do with an incident or memory is generally more important than the subject matter itself” (38). I placed markers in the chapter on form to highlight several paragraphs with suggestions for generating ideas, questions to address the specifics of what one is writing and why. I found myself feeling like I had entered a familiar classroom with a favorite professor. Bradway and Hesse’s direction is detailed and intricate, but gentle and encouraging in its delivery. I was inspired to return to stories of my own to apply what I was learning, to manipulate structures and time, and experiment with dialogue.

Bradway and Hesse find new ways to shed light on standard information. It is heartening to see oneself in missives about falling “in love with words . . . putting them together in unique ways . . . forced to define what had previously been overlooked” (78). It is liberating to note that “unconventional punctuation shows that we’ve moved from the realm of the conventional to the literary” (83). The authors don’t encourage us to blatantly ignore rules. They present examples and show us how best to choose our own unique styles without losing our readers in the process.

I am fond of the revision process. This does not mean that I don’t find it tedious and dull sometimes. Creating handles this subject meticulously, emphasizing the fact that while “the act of writing can seduce and beguile, causing us to love our worst lines” (98), we must realize the fatality of the flawed phrase, sentence, paragraph, or even chapter. How many times have I forced myself to remove something I thought enchanting? And how much information has been jettisoned because it was useless? How often have I noticed, after reading something more than ten times, that I’ve left out vital data, or punctuation, or that I’ve misspelled a word, or missed the boat entirely? It serves us as writers to be reminded that details must “develop the larger narrative pull and thematic concerns” (113).

Creating concludes its lessons with chapters on research, interviewing, and writing ideas. Although I tend to resist research, it is usually necessary to good writing. And I often find myself enjoying the process, despite my aversions, and Bradway and Hesse take me to task, calling writers detectives who don’t consider research “an odious, dreaded task but an adventure in finding an answer and getting a fuller picture” (120).

As a book on the craft of writing, Creating Nonfiction is one of the best I’ve read, and its anthology is wonderful, with numerous variations on style and form, and topics ranging from the operations of a candy factory, to the squalid conditions of abject poverty. As one who yearns to improve, I will continue to use this book. If I were teaching, it would be indispensable.  I have touched on a fraction of what makes this book a must-have for aspiring writers. To wit, it is a gold mine.

Bradway, Becky and Doug Hesse. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2009. Print.

What it Takes to Keep Me

Congratulations, Gabrielle!

Melancholy Hyperbole

Your grandmother loved me from the day we met
but not enough. She told you you should keep me,
as though a Boy Scout badge, something to put
in a shoebox or sew with thin stitches onto your sash.

Keep her. I wasn’t repelled by her stories of viscera,
of reaching into the red cavity, gripping the muscle,
squeezing when it wouldn’t, reminding it of purpose,
meaning. The bones beneath her pale tattoo corded

as she made a fist. The blue outline of a seagull
undercut by veins shot through her onion skin,
gold band on her gnarled finger thinned to a razor
edge; she touched my sternum. “There,” she said.

“Where we cracked him open.” She squeezed.
“I had his heart in my hand.” I thought about fingers
gripping a scalpel, slicing wet through the sac,
closing around the slick organ that looks nothing

like my childhood drawings, the…

View original post 108 more words

Black as the Devil’s Dreams: Thoughts on Place in Pete Dexter’s Deadwood

by Matthew McEver

Attributed to Chief Seattle is this quote: “(The white man) is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on… he treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

Writers like to talk about sense of place, but we’re often guilty of using place only to decorate the page, to point to our mastery of the language, rather than using place to bear witness to greater truths about human beings. We take from the land what we need, and we move on. Thankfully, there are writers who have used place in order to say something about human behavior.  

The sense of place in Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood is an excellent example. Deadwood is representative of the literature of the American West, but it is a subversive Western–a Western that refuses to champion rugged individualism and progress, as many Westerns have done. Deadwood, South Dakota was an illegal settlement in Lakota territory, and the strong sense of place in Deadwood reminds us that people destroy one another over land. Characters in the novel are hyperbolically violent and wicked because ownership of land has historically been tied to human violence and wickedness.

Dexter refuses to exalt Manifest Destiny. Instead, he caricatures westward expansion by blending comedy and horror, seamlessly. The novel’s characters are so morally deteriorated that nothing phases them. They engage in droll, flippant commentary in response to gun violence and, in one instance, rape. The role of dark humor in Deadwood is to undermine the “heroism” and intrepidness of those who displaced the Lakota by amplifying their depravity, suggesting that the legacy of American frontier expansion is actually that of amoral opportunism.

The novel opens with a parody of the journey westward, the archetypical passage to Eden, as a caravan heads for Deadwood. Historically, the Black Hills Gold Rush instigated the settlement and development of Deadwood, but here and throughout the novel, Dexter downplays the economic impetus. The impulse driving this journey is not as much greed as it is debauchery. The caravan consists of twenty-eight wagons, but “most of them are full of whores” (6). Furthermore, Dexter’s use of setting alerts us to the spiritual condition of the people when he describes the hills as being “black as the devil’s dreams” (Ibid). Dexter is turning the journey-of-progress motif on its head. These characters long for Deadwood not because it promises prosperity or renewal, but because it will cater to their base desires. Deadwood is not Eden, but Sodom.

Dexter undermines the notion of westward expansion as a higher calling by suggesting that Manifest Destiny brings out the worst in people. Virtually all characters in Deadwood are in varying degrees of downward trajectory, a moral equivalent of reverse-Darwinism. The town is full of violence, yet the characters are so desensitized as to shrug it off, treating violence as mundane. Saloons and hotels have bullet holes in the ceilings. One cartoonish scene involves Handsome Banjo Dick Brown who, while onstage, narrowly escapes the throw of an axe from a cuckolded husband, manages to return fire—hitting the axe-man with five bullets—and resumes his song. Such pastiche gains full impact when offset against the somber tone of characters detailing Indian violence, particularly the “terrible mutilations” suffered by Custer’s army (26). Characters speak of Custer’s death almost with reverence. The discrepancies, the comic violence offset against gruesomely somber violence, suggests that only Indian violence is horrible—or real for that matter, but White violence is all in fun.

Dexter could have offered lyrical descriptions of the landscape with no purpose beyond decorating the page, calling attention to how well he writes about place. But place in this novel serves a higher purpose. Place in Deadwood tells us about the base desires of the characters, tells us something about our commodification of land.

The lawless character of the town in the novel underscores the inherent amorality of Lakota displacement in the name of progress. And because Dexter creates tension between the real and the imagined, between fiction and history, he seemingly mocks biased history, history told by those who conquered. By placing the horrors of history and the amorality of frontier opportunism and violence alongside comic absurdity, Dexter defies a myth that serves the cause of American hubris.

 

Dexter, Pete. Deadwood. New York: Random House, 1986.