These late winter mornings, I hear birdsong. I hear birdsong even though the temperatures have been in the single digits or below zero, even though a new snow storm sweeps through every few days. The birds don’t know how to doubt. The turning of the earth tells them that spring is closer each day.
It takes a similar faith to be a writer. We come to the page with an idea of what we’ll put there. We hold faith that something of value will emerge. We’re believers. Every one of us who works with words believes in the value of that work. We come back to the blank page time and time again because we’re convinced that this time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll succeed. This time the words on the page will do what we intend them to do.
Let’s admit it: Anyone who writes memoir does a song and dance with the facts. Even if we’re determined to be completely faithful and only include the verifiable when it comes to event, chronology, and dialogue, our memories are fallible and sometimes they’re the only thing we can rely on to say “This is the truth.”
To me, this conversation about what to do with the facts starts to become tiresome, but also necessary. When it comes to writing memoir, what are we willing to do with the facts of our lives? In addition, what should we not allow ourselves to do?
I have a piece of wood, nearly six-feet in length, taken from the debris of a farmhouse fallen in on itself. The farmhouse that belonged to my family, the house in which my mother first read to me, the house where I listened to my father and my uncles swap stories, the house where I would eventually spend long summer days reading books inherited from my grandfather, the house where my family suffered the accident that cost my father both of his hands, the house that he filled with his rage.
I think often about the objects people handle and how they can pay off for us when we craft narratives. Today, I’m thinking about a story by David Leavitt, “Gravity,” the story of a young man, Theo, who has AIDS. He’s opted for a sight-saving drug over the medications that will prolong his life. He’s come home to live with his mother, and on the day of the story they’ve gone shopping for a wedding gift for Theo’s cousin, Howie. Theo’s mother, Sylvia, insists on buying a $425 crystal bowl as a way of calling attention to the cheap pen and pencil set that Howie’s mother gave Theo for his graduation. The extravagant bowl will serve as a reminder to Howie’s mother that Sylvia hasn’t forgotten the slight.
I’m a writer who runs. I run because it calms me. It creates a quiet, peaceful place from which I can think more clearly, feel more deeply, write with more energy. “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois,” Flaubert said, “so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
My mother died on a brutally cold day in January in 1988. She was a grade school teacher for forty-one years, starting at a small country school when she was eighteen and retiring at the age of fifty-nine, the age I am now.
I’ve been asked to offer some further thoughts on designing and leading a creative writing workshop, and to respond I thought I’d talk a bit about how I do the novel workshop that I’ve been teaching in the summer at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. This will give me a chance to talk a bit about general strategies that I think work well in any workshop while also extolling the virtues of this particular writers’ conference, which is enrolling students now for this summer.
This week’s request to talk a bit about leading a writing workshop is timely because the Spring Semester begins at Ohio State today, and this evening, I’ll be meeting with my MFA fiction workshop for the first time. Here are some things I promise to do as I lead this workshop. I offer them here for anyone who may be thinking about teaching a workshop or for those who may want to think about how to be productive members of such a workshop.
1. to set a tone of mutual respect, generous inquiry, collaboration, and good humor.
I remember on New Year’s Eve, when I was a boy, my father’s side of the family would gather for a supper of oyster soup and games of cards—usually either Pitch or Rook. This was in a day when we didn’t have cell phones that took pictures, when we didn’t live in a society that immediately documents every moment. On occasion someone would have an instamatic camera or a Polaroid, so sometimes there would be a few moments frozen in time—people sitting around a kitchen table, cards fanned before them, my cousin reaching out to gather in a trick, or my mother in the midst of conversation, her head tossed back as she laughed.
Feeling a little disorganized around the holidays? Imagine the way writers of memoirs must feel when faced with the task of giving shape and structure to the experiences that they’re trying to render on the page. I’ve had a request to talk about such things, so here goes.