HANDLING the TRUTH
HANDLING the TRUTH
Throughout the 1990s, I was an unknown and in many ways unschooled writer who was deeply in love with her son. Love, for me, was the time I sat with this boy reading stories. It was the songs I sang to him at night. It was the walks we took and the hats we bought and the important things he taught me about language both received and given, and courage made essential. I wrote love one fragment at a time. I webbed it together until discrete essays became a binding narrative. I sent the manuscript out, a slush-pile writer. When this small book of mine—a family book, an intimate book—found readers beyond people I personally knew, I was utterly unprepared. I had been an outsider. I had written from the margins. I still had much to learn.
I would go on to write four more memoirs and a river book that I called Flow that assumed the memoir’s form. I would be asked to conduct workshops and give talks—in elementary schools, in middle schools, in high schools, at universities, in libraries and community centers. I would write about the writing life for publications great and small. I would chair juries for the National Book Awards and the PEN First Nonfiction Awards and serve on a jury panel for the National Endowment for the Arts. I would explore new genres—poetry, fable, young adult literature. I would—a brave experiment—begin to blog daily in memoiristic fashion. The important thing to me was this: I was still writing. I was still reading. I was still learning.
When the University of Pennsylvania asked me to teach creative nonfiction, I was not inclined to say yes. Raised up in memoir on my own, surrounded by my own huge but idiosyncratic memoir library, still in many ways making my outsider way into the book world, it wasn’t at all clear to me that I would succeed within an Ivy League environment among faculty members who knew what teaching was. I hadn’t grown up in the workshop system; how could I teach it? With the exception of three ten-day summer programs I enrolled in when I was already a mother, I had never taken a formal writing class. I was the true memoir autodidact, and this was Penn, where, as a student years before, I had studied the history and sociology of science, swerving clear of English.
As it turns out, teaching at Penn had been my calling all along. I eased into the responsibility—first mentoring a single student, then teaching a select advanced class, then taking on the teaching of Creative Nonfiction 135.302, which has become my favorite job of all. In teaching others memoir, I have taught it to myself—the language of expectations and critique, the exemplary work of others, the exercises that yield well-considered work, the morality of the business, the psychic cautions. Teaching memoir is teaching vulnerability is teaching voice is teaching self. Next to motherhood, it has been, for me, the greatest privilege.
It has also—perhaps inevitably—led to the writing of this book. Handling the Truth is about the making of memoir, and the consequences. It’s about why so many get it wrong, and about how to get it right. It’s about the big questions: Is compassion teachable? Do half memories count? Are landscape, weather, color, taste, and music background or foreground? To whom does then belong? And what rights do memoirists have, and how does one transcend particulars to achieve a universal tale, and how does a memoirist feel, once the label is attached, and what is the language of truth? Handling the Truth is about knowing ourselves. It’s about writing, word after word, and if it swaggers a little, I hope it teaches a lot, providing a proven framework for teachers, students, and readers.
DEFINITIONS, PRELIMINARIES, CAUTIONS
MAYBE the audacity of it thrills you. Maybe it’s always been like this: You out on the edge with your verity serums, your odd-sized heart, your wet eyes, urging. Maybe this is what you are good for, after all, or good at, though there, you’ve done it again: wanted proof, suggested the possibility. You teach memoir. You negotiate truth. Goodness doesn’t matter here. Bearing witness does.
Memoir is a strut and a confession, a whisper in the ear, a scream. Memoir performs, then cedes. It is the work of thieves. It is a seduction and a sleight of hand, and the world won’t rise above it.
Or you won’t. You in the Victorian manse at the edge of the Ivy League campus, where you arrive early and sit in the attitude of prayer. You who know something not just of the toil but also of the psychic cost, the pummeling doubt, the lacerating regrets that live in the aftermath of public confession. You have written memoir in search of the lessons children teach and in confusion over the entanglements of friendships. You have written in despair regarding the sensational impossibility of knowing another, in defense of the imperiled imagination, and in the throes of the lonesome sink toward middle age. You have written quiet and expected quiet, and yet a terrible noise has hurried in—a churlish self-recrimination that cluttered the early hours when clear-minded nonmemoirists slept. You have learned from all that. You have decided. Memoir is, and will still be, but cautions must be taken.
Teaching memoir is teaching verge. It’s teaching questions: Who are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? What do you believe in? What will you fight for? What is the sound of your voice? It’s teaching now against then, and leave that out to put this in, and yes, maybe that happened, but what does it mean? An affront? You hope not. A calling? Probably.
You enter a classroom of students you have never seen before, and over the course of a semester you travel—their forgotten paraphernalia in the well of their backpacks, those tattoos on their wrists, those bio notes inked onto the palm of one hand. They will remember their mother’s London broil, but not the recipe. They will proffer a profusion of umbrellas and a poor-fitting snowsuit, a pair of polka-dotted boots, red roses at a Pakistani grave, a white billiard ball, a pink-and-orange sari, a box with a secret bottom, Ciao Bella gelato. Someone will make a rat-a-tat out of a remembered list. Someone will walk you through the corridors of the sick or through the staged room of a movie set or beside the big bike that will take them far. Someone will say, Teach me how to write like this, and someone will ask what good writing is, and you will read out loud from the memoirs you have loved, debunk (systematically) and proselytize (effusively), perform Patti Smith and Terrence Des Pres, Geoffrey Wolff and Mark Richard, Marie Arana and Mary Karr, William Fiennes and Michael Ondaatje, C. K. Williams and Natalie Kusz. You will play recordings of Sylvia Plath reciting “Lady Lazarus” and Etheridge Knight intoning “The Idea of Ancestry,” and you will say, in a room made dark by encrusted velvet and mahogany stain, You tell me good. You tell me why. Know your opinions and defend them.
These aspiring makers of memoir are who you believe and what you believe in—the smiley face tie he wears on Frat Rush Tuesdays, the cheerful interval between her two front teeth, the planks he carries in his dark-blue backpack, the accoutrements of power lifting. Enamored of the color red and hip-hop, declaring you their “galentine,” impersonating Whitman, missing their mothers, missing their dead, they are, simply and complexly, human, and they may not trust themselves with truth, but they have to trust one another. You insist that they earn the trust of one another.
And so you will send them out into the world with cameras. And so you will sit them down with songs. And so you will ask them to retrieve what they lost and, after that, to leave aside the merely incidental. You will set a box of cookies on the table, some chocolate-covered berries, some salt-encrusted chips, and then (at last) get out of the way, for every memoir must in the end and on its own emerge and bleed and scab.
Audacity was the wrong word; you see that now. The word, in fact, is privilege. Teaching, after all these years, is the marrow in your bones. Truth is your obsession.
MEMOIR IS NOT
HERE are some of the things that memoir is not:
• A chronological, thematically tone-deaf recitation of everything remembered. That’s autobiography, which should be left, in this twenty-first century, to politicians and celebrities. Oh, be honest: It should just be left.
• A typeset version of a diary scrawl—unfiltered, unshaped. There are remarkable diaries; A Woman in Berlin (anonymous), for example, is artful, heartbreaking, essential. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (Teresa Carpenter, editor) is a thrill. But the method of a diarist is to record events and thoughts as they are happening. A memoirist looks back.
• Exhibitionism for exhibitionism’s sake. If nothing’s been learned from a life, is it worth sharing? Or, if nothing’s been learned yet, shouldn’t the story wait?
• An accusation, a retaliation, a big take that! in type. Fights are waged in bedrooms and courthouses. A memoir is not a fight.
• A lecture, a lesson, a stew of information and facts. Memoirs illuminate and reveal, as opposed to justify and record. They connote and suggest but never insist.
• A self-administered therapy session. Memoirists speak to others and not just to themselves.
• An exercise in self-glorification; an ability—or refusal—to accept one’s own culpability; a false allegiance to the idea that a life, any life, can be perfectly lived or faultlessly explained.
• An unwillingness to recognize—either explicitly or implicitly—that memory is neither machine nor uncontestable. Memory—our own and others’—is a tricky, fallible business.
• A trumped-up, fantastical idea of what an interesting life might have been, if only. A web of lies. A smudge. A mockery of reality. There is a separate (even equal) category for such things. It goes by the name of fiction.
IF you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives—anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes—toward mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up—high, high, high—so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable—not just to the world but also to themselves. They yearn, and they are yearned with. They declare a want to know. They seek out loud. They quest. They lessen the distance. They lean toward.
Listen, for example, to Michael Ondaatje as he sets out to rediscover—and make sense of—his Sri Lankan childhood. From the opening pages of Running in the Family:
I had already planned the journey back. During quiet afternoons I spread maps onto the floor and searched out possible routes to Ceylon. But it was only in the midst of this party, among my closest friends, that I realized I would be travelling back to the family I had grown from—those relations from my parents’ generation who stood in my memory like frozen opera. I wanted to touch them into words. A perverse and solitary desire. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion I had come across the lines, “she had been forced into prudence in her youth—she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning.” In my mid-thirties I realized I had slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood.
Diane Keaton, a celebrity who wrote not autobiography but memoir with Then Again, uses collage (letters written, journals plumbed, secrets exposed) to parse a question and to explore (beautifully, calmly, as a human being and not as a star) a thoughtfully articulated theme. It’s all here in a single sentence—hardly easy gloss. It’s the crinkly stuff of living and losing, and it sets the book in motion:
Comparing two women with big dreams who shared many of the same conflicts and also happened to be mother and daughter is partially a story of what’s lost in success contrasted with what’s gained in accepting an ordinary life.
Maybe memoir, for some, is the Queen of the Nasties—the medical horror story, the impossible loss story, the abuse story, the deprivation story, the I’ve-been-cheated story, the headline-making you’re kidding mes. But plot (which is to say the stuff of a life) is empty if it doesn’t signify, and the unexamined tragedy—thank you, Socrates—isn’t worth the trees it will be inked on or the screen that fingers will smudge. Some of the best memoirs are built not from sensate titillations but from the contemplation of universal questions within a framed perspective.
Annie Dillard, for example, is not a victim in her growing-up classic, An American Childhood. She’s a woman looking back on what it meant to grow awake to the world.
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.
Likewise, while loss frames C. K. Williams’s Misgivings, it’s not the tragedy he’s chasing. It’s understanding.
My father dead, I come into the room where he lies and I say aloud, immediately concerned that he might still be able to hear me, What a war we had! To my father’s body I say it, still propped up on its pillows, before the men from the funeral home arrive to put him into their horrid zippered green bag to take him away, before his night table is cleared of the empty bottles of pills he wolfed down when he’d finally been allowed to end the indignity of his suffering, and had found the means to do it. Before my mother comes in to lie down beside him.
When my mother dies, I’ll say to her, as unexpectedly, knowing as little that I’m going to, “I love you.” But to my father, again now, my voice, as though of its own accord, blurts, What a war! And I wonder again why I’d say that. It’s been years since my father and I raged at each other the way we once did, violently, rancorously, seeming to loathe, despise, detest one another. Years since we’d learned, perhaps from each other, perhaps each in our struggles with ourselves, that conflict didn’t have to be as it had been for so long the routine state of affairs between us.
In Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger is in keen pursuit of understanding, too, though in this memoir about raising twin sons, one of whom suffers irreparable brain damage at birth, it’s Bissinger’s own inability to be at peace, to find solace, to be okay that generates the tension, and the search.
It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years. Strange is a lousy word, meaning nothing. It is the most terrible pain of my life. As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed, I also run. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of my shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way?
Marie Arana wrote American Chica not to exploit a family or to out dark secrets, not to trump or to claim, but to somehow register how two exceptionally different people—her parents—could sustain a home.
A South American man, a North American woman—hoping against hope, throwing a frail span over the divide, trying to bolt beams into sand. There was one large lesson they had yet to learn as they strode into the garden with friends, hungry from rum and fried blood: There is a fundamental rift between North and South America, a flaw so deep it is tectonic. The plates don’t fit. The earth is loose. A fault runs through. Earthquakes happen. Walls are likely to fall.
As I looked down at their fleeting radiance, I had no idea I would spend the rest of my life puzzling over them.
And then there’s Jeanette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. She is writing not to abrade her mother—she might have, the material was there—but to report back out from a life of searching on the matter and the necessity of love.
Listen, we are human beings. Listen, we are inclined to love. Love is there, but we need to be taught how. We want to stand upright, we want to walk, but someone needs to hold our hand and balance us a bit, and guide us a bit, and scoop us up when we fall.
Listen, we fall. Love is there but we have to learn it—and its shapes and its possibilities. I taught myself to stand on my own two feet, but I could not teach myself how to love.
Beauty is born of urgency; that should be clear. Forced knowing is false knowing—self-evident, perhaps? Voice is tone and mood and attitude, and tense will make a difference. Makers of memoir shape what they have lived and what they have seen. They honor what they love and defend what they believe. They dwell with ideas and language and with themselves, countering complexity with clarity and manipulating (for the sake of seeing) time. They locate stories inside the contradictions of their lives—the false starts and the presumed victories, the epiphanies that rub themselves raw nearly as soon as they are stated. They write the stories once; they write them several times.
They take a breath.
And when their voices are true, we hear them true. We trust them.
READ TO WRITE
ONCE I had a friend. Yes. Once. It had occurred to her to write a book, a memoir in particular, and so she called, asking for help. It should be fun, she said. I set to work creating a list of the memoirs my friend might read, for she hadn’t read even so much as a single memoir yet, and I thought reading might be helpful. I sent the list and that was that—the end of the memoir, and of the friendship.
I don’t mean to be insulting when I suggest that memoir writers should read memoir, but there they are—my annoying politics. Stories live inside the pages of memoirs, but so do strategies, tactics. Fine little experiments with points of view and tense. Daring reversals of structure. Elisions and white space. Italics pressed up against roman. I’m a little bit sorry, but the facts are the facts: You have to read memoir to write it.
I read in the earliest part of the day—before my husband stirs, before the glisten on the grass burns off, before anybody anywhere can suggest a different agenda. I read outside on the old chaise longue, or on the slatted, sloping deck, or on my side of the bed, turned toward the breeze and the clean pink morning light.
Reading is equally about exiting and entering, about going away and going nowhere. Reading early in the morning is like having one more dream, like lolling just a little longer in the strange, sweet gauze of sleep. If I were to draw myself in the morning reading, I would draw my head as a cloud—edgeless and capacious and shape-shifting and unbound, hovering near but never tethered to the bones and muscles of my body. I read, I am saying, and without moving anywhere I go—into the deep, wild, sometimes contradicting, mostly illuminating language and landscape of memoir. I learn (over and again) how memoir is made. I learn what memoirists teach.
With Road Song, Natalie Kusz teaches the importance of selecting just the right details, and of giving them room on the page. With Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje commends the power of fragments and the integrity of not being entirely sure—or sane. With Half a Life, Darin Strauss teaches white space. With House of Prayer No. 2, Mark Richard teaches intimate second-person prose. With Just Kids, Patti Smith teaches how much room memoir can make to preserve the integrity (and privacy) of others. With The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff teaches forgiveness. With Bone Black, bell hooks teaches the power of the returning refrain.
The good memoirs aren’t just good stories. They are instructions on both life and form, considerations of shapes, shadows thrown up onto the wall. They are—they must be—works of art. It’s fundamental, then, isn’t it? You have to know what art is before you set out to write it. You have to have a dictionary of working terms, a means by which you can deliver up a verdict on your own sentences and their arrangements.
Buy the books. (There’s an appendix back there to get you started.) Increase your shelf space. Go dirty and dog-eared; take an afternoon sprawl. “When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring,” Grace Paley said. “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world,” Patricia Hampl said.
Don’t be boring.
Find the world.
And then (and only then) wedge yourself within it.
IN the faces of my students I see the person I once was, though I was nearly twice their age, married, and a mother when I enrolled in my first writers’ workshop. We’d flown to Spoleto, Italy, for a family vacation, and we’d climbed hills and slipped inside churches and sat beneath rooms where pianos were playing. There were nuns on the hills, ropes at their waists. There were market flowers wilted by sun. We’d arrived late at night and settled into a stranger’s flat (the plates still draining by the kitchen sink, a cloud of smoky moon in the front window), and the next day I’d hauled myself up the stairs of a round-cornered building and sat in the back of the class.
I’d brought a blank book with gray pages, its cover hieroglyphically embossed. I’d read the works of our teachers, Reginald Gibbons and Rosellen Brown, and beyond the window, deep in the hills, was the Roman theater and the turreted castle, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the shop of silver trinkets and cards from which my toddler son would soon (almost) catastrophically run as a Fiat hurtled by. The poisonous wasp that would balloon my husband’s hand was out there. The pizza shop with the festoon of paper flowers at the base of the hill. The slinking arm of the aqueduct. The basilica in pale light, its beauty explained by my husband with two words: forced perspective. The cemetery where soon the class would go to imagine the lives of those whose names we’d find scratched out of headstones and buffed by a woman bearing (in broad daylight) a candle flame and a white handkerchief.
But at that moment there was only the classroom, the squeak-footed chairs, my blank book, the other students, Rosellen, and Reginald, and it was Reginald who began: “Every difference makes a difference.” Word for word, I transcribed him. “The craft of writing is to describe something so that someone else can see it.” Soon Reginald was quoting Henry James—“Be one of those on whom nothing is lost”—and then Rosellen was speaking: “I like the sentence that begins romantically, then de-romanticizes itself.”
The sentence that de-romanticizes itself.
I had been a closet writer nearly all my life—my poems stuffed in boxes, my short stories boomeranged back to me via return-envelope mail. I was taking my first lesson in craft, and what I learned in Spoleto, what I chose to value or come to believe about myself, would shape the way I thought about stories made and lived every thereafter day of my life. It would make me want to find a way to pass the knowing down.
Spoleto also began for me the process of examining, defining, and attempting to live up to my own literary expectations. What was I looking for in the writers I read? What was I hoping for from myself? Why hadn’t I asked myself these questions before? Why had I left so much to hazy qualifiers? Why did I not yet have a standard that I was holding myself to? What does good mean, after all? And what did I mean, when I said, simply, I love it?
Things had to change.
Of memoirists—I have learned as I have read, learned as I have taught, learned as I have reviewed my own work and the work of others—I expect deliberation with structure, ambition with language, compassion in tone, magnanimous reach, a refusal to presume that chronology alone teaches. And since I am so busy expecting that of others, I cop to expecting it of myself. Memoirs—their memoirs, my memoirs—must transcend not just the category and the particulars of the story but also, ultimately, the author herself.
My expectations, then. But what about yours? What about the expectations of my students? In that Victorian manse on the edge of my campus, extraordinary work emerges when I give my students 750 words each to express their expectations. The prompt question may seem simple enough: What do you expect of others as you read, and what do you expect of yourself as a writer? The responses, however, have been remarkable, establishing for each writer not just a critical vocabulary and frame but also a contract of sorts. This is what I’m looking for, each essay concludes, in its own fashion. Look at me setting the bar.
I rarely know what to expect of my students’ expectations essays. I have never—and this is deeply true—been disappointed. The essay fragments that I share here are meant to inspire you. Who am I kidding? They absolutely inspire me.
I expect, in a well-written piece, to be drawn in without my notice. I don’t want awkwardly chosen words to fight for my attention. I want the attraction to feel effortless and instant, as if the writer doesn’t even know she’s being read. Or, even further: I want to imagine that a piece of writing is just an elegant, authorless, whole thought that had already existed before a writer nets it onto a page. Part of my fantasy is that the writer does not even care if the piece is read; this autonomous thing on the page is just fanning its wings and sunning itself, wholly innocent of me, the reader-voyeur. The writer is someone who has carelessly left a pair of glasses on the grass so that I can have a look. —Sara
Address me (first-person point-of-views are a good way to start, but not necessary) and acknowledge my presence. I want to know that you’re writing for someone other than yourself: me. Write with intentionality. Labor over every sentence and every other word. Because at night, when I hold these bound pages you regard as your life’s work, I want to read it with the trust that you have thought long and hard about the impact of your words on my mind. Because when I arrive at the destination your words have brought me to, I want to know that my journey is the result of your love. —Rachel
I hold the writers I read to the same standards as I hold myself. I enjoy writing that feels genuine because it allows me to trust the author and become more invested in his or her work. When I encounter writing that is pretentious or condescending, I put up a barrier that prevents me from getting anything out of the work at all. I get a great deal more out of reading when authors use imagery and description to draw me into their story and make it come alive. —Nabil
I also expect compassion for the people mentioned in a piece. We are all fallible and faulted. I expect fairness in a portrayal; very few people are flat characters, merely good or bad. Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception was a great example of compassion. Though his father was a fraud, he still can say, “I had this from him always: compassion, care, generosity, and endurance.” Another aspect of fairness is consideration of others’ vulnerability: throughout our lives, others entrust us with their secrets. I wouldn’t default on that trust without explicit permission. Not everything we know about the people in our lives is fair game. I want to be respectful of others in my writing. —Erin
What, then, is the stimulus for entertainment? Reading appeals to people from a voyeuristic perspective—the contrived intimacy of knowing others blithely and truly, with no repercussions, is the consummation of high human fantasy. We long for social connection at will. The mentioned aspects of literary entertainment entice the reader for their functional relationship to the voyeur’s fulfillment: they simulate the closeness and familiarity while belying the actual vacuum between reader and character. In his essay, Seabrook shows us Schnabel the way his visitors see him—or the way that they might. The legitimacy of the reader’s depiction is unimportant and personal—the facts that paint that picture remain true. DeLillo’s encomia to contemporary commercialism and the academy place us in the confused mind of an intellectual, bridging conceptions with shifting tones, allowing the narrative to speak as much implicitly as it does explicitly. This is what I expect in writing, and what I expect to give. —Jonathan
Once I am committed to a book, I want to feel as though I am in an unhealthy serious relationship, the kind where you don’t ever want to go anywhere without the significant other and it’s all that is on your mind. I like to be able to know and empathize with the characters, so I can talk about them as if I were gossiping about a friend. While I can appreciate a poetic writer that crafts beautifully poised sentences, I tend to be more attracted to raw and honest writing, someone who can tell a good story without sounding pretentious. A good ending is pivotal; this doesn’t mean every story has to have a fairy tale ending, but as I’ve learned in psychology, the “recency effect” claims that I’m most likely going to remember the last part I read. Thus a writer should want to leave the reader with anything but an inadequate closure; lingering questions are acceptable, but a weak and poorly cohesive conclusion will only leave a sour taste in my mouth. —Katie
I expect myself to surprise my reader by endowing my piece with that certain X factor that transforms a memory into a story. I want to do this on the linguistic level, by varying my sentence length and experimenting with punctuation (I find the dash to be very powerful when used correctly). Perhaps more importantly, I expect to surprise myself (or maybe I don’t expect this, because then it wouldn’t be quite a surprise). But I can and do expect myself to be open to the possibility of surprise, and not to confine my memoir to a given framework within which it has no room to develop. I am excited to see how my writing and my voice will emerge. —Leah