History and Memoir

It starts with the documentary about the Roosevelts that Ken Burns did for PBS—this overwhelming nostalgia that comes over me. I streamed the program on Netflix last week, and once it hit 1910, the year of my mother’s birth, I began to use the timeline to mark the progression of my parents’ lives.

The Great Depression especially roused my interest. My father would have been sixteen in 1929, a farm boy who had to travel ten miles to town to go to high school. How early did he have to rise to do his chores? Did he have money for a hot lunch? Were the seats of his trousers and the elbows of his sweaters shiny from wear?

What Good Can Our Scribbling Possibly Do?

I just got back from Louisville, KY, where I was part of a reading on Friday evening, and where I taught a class on constructing narratives at the Writer’s Block Festival on Saturday. The reading was held at the Bard’s Town, a restaurant and pub, and, yes, you guessed it, a Shakespearean theme. What writer wouldn’t love a place where you can order “The Shrimpest,” “Midsummer Night’s Greens,” or an “Iambic Pork-tameter.” There was an open mic, and then three of us old-er timers read. The young son of one of the other writers was attending his first reading. He laughed at my jokes and told me later he liked what I read. His mother said, “Ah, it’s his first author-compliment.” I listened to people read with heart and conviction, and this after the tragic news from Paris. The world is a wild and crazy place, and sometimes all we can do is keep moving our words about on the page.

Silence and Solitude

When I was a small boy on our farm, I often felt lonely. I was an only child who had to get comfortable with being alone. Now I see what a blessing it was, a blessing of silence and solitude. I liked to read, and I liked to watch television, and I liked to play with my toy guns, creating various scenarios of peril which required my heroism. I also loved sports, and I came up with ways to play with a basketball, football, baseball, that cast me as the star. In short, because I was an only child, I fell in love with stories, and I learned to rely on my imagination.

Ten Principles: An Idiot’s Revision

In my post last week, I suggested that, when we write about ourselves at an earlier age, we’re wise to do so from a position in the here-and-now that allows us to look at those idiots we surely were with humor while at the same time respecting that idiocy. A few people objected to the term, “idiot,” and rightly so. I’m inclined, then, this week to elaborate.

The intention of last week’s post was to make some points about good writing in general:

  1. Don’t be afraid to write about the painful and the confusing, but do so in a way that doesn’t require you getting lost in that pain and confusion.

Who’s That Singing?: Memoir and Irony

When I heard that Cory Wells, a member of the rock band, Three Dog Night, had died, I found myself watching YouTube videos of their performances. The song that struck me most was “Eli’s Coming.” It’s a song that Laura Nyro wrote and Three Dog Night later covered. It was popular during my early high school years, played often by the disc jockey at our after-basketball-game sock hops. For those of you who don’t know, the song has a slow build from a dramatic opening promising that Eli is indeed coming, to a rockin’ warning of “Eli’s coming, hide your heart girl!”

Forgetting What We Know When We Write Creative Nonfiction

Usually when I write an essay—particularly if it’s a segmented, braided, or lyric piece—I have no idea where it’s going. My first draft consists of gathering pieces—bits of narrative, details, images, associations. I might have a central narrative that I sense is the container for what I’ve come to the page to say, but I may not know what it contains until the very end. At other times, I might have a detail or image that the draft is featuring, but I won’t know why. Sometimes there will be an accretion of details and images that finally collide in a way that makes meaning. But what about the times when, in the midst of the writing process, I understand exactly where the draft is going. I know the surprising response the narrative will bring out of me, or I know how a detail or image will evolve by the end of the essay. What do we do when we know too much too soon in our writing process?

Close to Home: Writing the Small and the Intimate

Recently, I drove by a field and saw a rusted corn picker nearly hidden by weeds. I thought of a similar corn picker that throughout my childhood sat at the edge of the woods on our farm, never used, going to rust. It occurs to me now that this must have been the corn picker my father was using that early November day in 1956 when he had the accident that cost him both of his hands. How many times, as a child, did I pass by this picker and never make that connection? To me, it was just an old farm implement, one that had nothing to do with me, when, really, it, and what happened on that day in 1956, had everything to do with my childhood and all the years to come.

Taking the “Me” Out of “Memoir”

I was scrolling through Facebook one day when I came upon some photos my former neighbor had posted—photos of classic cars that he’d owned in the small town where we both lived when we were teenagers and then young men. In one of the photos, my parents’ house is clearly visible, my father’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 parked in our front yard. It’s always a bit of a shock to see a visual representation of some part of our past lives. Often, as in this case, we come upon it accidentally. We look at a photograph, and then suddenly realize that the background contains something of who we once were: someone we remember, but not quite; someone we carry with us, even though we can never again fully be that person. The same is true for family members, especially those who are now gone. We see an image of the people they were—maybe we see something they once owned like a house or a car, or maybe we see the people themselves, and even though we ache to reconstitute their lives, we know we’re doomed to fail. Those of us who write memoir or personal essays know well the feeling of almost being able to reach back through time to touch our family members again, only to have a hollow feeling when we’ve put them on the page because the only time they were ever wholly who they were is gone forever. Still, we face this challenge each time we write our stories. We keep trying to accurately represent the people we once knew.

New Beginnings

It’s harvest time here in the Midwest. Farmers are busy cutting beans and corn. The days are getting shorter. Leaves are starting to have some color. The nights are loud with the sounds of insects busy getting ready for the winter. This is a time for gathering.I know we’re tempted to think of autumn as a death of sorts and winter the long grieving period before the rebirth of spring, but these days, nearing my 60th birthday, I’m concentrating on collecting and celebrating and looking forward to the lovely days ahead. I’m thinking of autumn, not as an end, but a new beginning. I’m thinking of winter as a time of renewal.

Facing Intimidating Material: How Tall Are You?

When The American Scholar invited the essayist, Brian Doyle, to write something in response to the horrific events of 9/11, Doyle’s replied, “No, there is nothing to write. The only thing to say is nothing. Bow your head in prayer and pray whatever prayers you pray. There is nothing to say.” But, as Jennifer Sinor reports in her piece on voice in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, the events of 9/11 wouldn’t leave Doyle alone, and eventually he realized that in order to move on into the future, he would have to meet that day on the page. The result is the stunning essay, “Leap,” that focuses on a man and a woman who, hand in hand, jumped from the south tower. Sinor rightly tells us that voice results from a writer internalizing his or her subject and then being willing to be vulnerable on the page. Doyle’s essay is a marvelous example of exactly that in the way he immerses himself in the subject matter through research and the way he finds his own stakes there—his sense of his humanity and the human capacity for love.