I’m reading Carrie Brown’s wonderful novel, The Last First Day, which I somehow missed when it came out in 2013. It’s the story of an aging couple and their sweep of time. The book opens on the first day of the new autumn term of New England’s Derry School for boys, where the husband, Peter, is the headmaster. The wife, Ruth, is getting ready to attend the opening assembly and to host a reception for the faculty that evening. The opening pages come to us from deep within Ruth’s consciousness as she readies herself for the evening’s events and as she contemplates the rough spots and the compromises of her long marriage. So little is happening as far as plot events, but so much is taking place inside Ruth’s heart, mind, and soul.
I write both fiction and nonfiction, and with the latter I have an admitted preference for narrative. No matter the genre, then, I see myself as a storyteller. I like to tell stories, and sometimes I like to tell them about invented characters, and sometimes I like to tell them about real people.
When I have material that I believe is important to announce and claim as my own—and that’s usually because there’s something I need to explore about myself and my experience, something I need to investigate that only the particulars of my own world will make possible—I turn to nonfiction.
More and more these days, I’m convinced that how we approach our work has a crucial connection to the quantity and quality of the work we produce. Much of our writing lives are spent in solitude, both physically and mentally. We often hope for good results so desperately that we rush the process. Sometimes we’re too afraid of failure and too afraid to occupy the uncomfortable places where our writing takes us. We have to respect the fact that we’re imperfect and may fall short of what we imagine for a particular piece, but we also have to be courageous enough to keep doing the work, trusting in our talents. Sometimes we’ll succeed, and we’ll be tempted to believe that now we’ve made it and from here on everything will be smooth sailing. It won’t be. We need to accept that. Each blank page or screen—each new piece—carries with it its own set of challenges to meet. When we fall short, we’ll be tempted to fall into despair. We have to resist that temptation. We have to keep going steadily about our work. Being regular with our writing routines is a good thing. Writing is a self-generating process. The more we do it, the better we do it. This means we sometimes have to remove ourselves from our loved ones. We have to close the door to our writing rooms and have that period of uninterrupted time to work. We should never forget, though, to get out of those writing rooms to explore the world. We have to experience life before we can shape it. Success will come, no matter how slowly or intermittently. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, full of peaks and valleys. Take time to celebrate the peaks; don’t dwell too long in the valleys. Take pleasure in the work.
Please forgive my absence this week. Sometimes, as Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us; late and soon.” I hope to return next week. Until then, let this passage from Maya Angelou’s Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now be enough:
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
I recently posted a quote from E.B. White on my Facebook group page, a quote that spoke to me about the importance of trouble when it comes to generating a plot: “There’s no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.”
I’ve always agreed with those who say that creating a plot is a simple matter of getting a character into trouble and then seeing what he or she will do to try to get out of it. With that in mind, I’d like to offer up a few ways to get your characters into trouble.
Writing well isn’t only a matter of technique; it’s also dependent on what we allow ourselves to feel. Often, my strongest feelings come from childhood. Driving back today from Indianapolis, I came upon a radio station that was playing old-time church hymns: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “In the Sweet By and By,” “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
With a little bit of luck, and a lot of waiting as my flight from Chicago was delayed, I finally made it back to Columbus from AWP. I left Seattle with fond memories of the Emerald City, buoyed by the camaraderie of the conference. How wonderful to see so many of my favorite people all in one place and to participate in the ongoing conversation about our writing and our teaching. Only one piece of unfinished business left me a bit unsettled, and I’d like to address it in this post.
I remember the silence of public libraries before they became places where people talk in normal tones of voice or even chat on cell phones. In summer, the only sound may have been the gentle whirr of an oscillating fan. In winter, there may have been the hiss of a steam radiator. People spoke in whispers when they had to ask the librarian something. It was a quiet place, and in that way it was holy.
Today’s post comes from some work I’ve been doing in preparation for a panel that I’ll be on at the AWP Conference at the end of the month. The panel, put together by the fabulous Sue William Silverman, is called “A Memoir with a View: On Bringing the Outside In.” Sonya Huber, Joy Castro, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher will be the other fine folks on the panel.
Last week, I posted ten random thoughts about writing a novel. To give equal time to my other genre, I offer these ten random thoughts about writing a memoir.
1. If you want revenge, don’t write a memoir. Start nasty rumors instead. When we write about people, we want to be fair to them even if they weren’t fair with us. We need to look at them, and ourselves, from as many different angles as possible in an attempt to understand the sources of the behavior. Writing a memoir is a search for understanding.