Impossible to Pin Down: Truth & Memory in Nonfiction

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Nonfiction as a genre confronts the discordance between memory—a slippery, subjective entity that can be the antithesis of truth—and actuality. Roy Peter Clark writes of the “essential fictive nature of all memory.” Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, write “of the elusive nature of recollection.” Roy Peter Clark‘s essay, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” in the Nieman Foundation’s guide, explores this further:

The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a form in which reality and imagination blur into a ‘fourth genre.’ The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters, in describing the memories of sources and witnesses, wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction. […] The postmodernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only takes on reality influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? They ask. Whose truth?

It’s one thing to be subject to memory’s slippery subjectivity, and another to consciously pick and choose where to place scenes. The latter is evidence of an experienced writer, who chooses responsibility to the narrative over the facts. Vivian Gornick might agree with this approach in The Situation and the Story:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. […] Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.

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The Summer of Salinger, A Review

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My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages
Knopf
$25.95

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest
$20

buy: here

 

As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading

(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

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I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

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Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

All-Time Favorite Writing Prompts

To round out this year of blogging about writing prompts, I polled writers and writing teachers for their favorite writing prompts–generally, simple prompts that have been useful to them as writers, students, and teachers. One such prompt that I found extremely useful in my early days of writing was, “Write about an obsession.” From this straightforward suggestion, I learned a lot about what can drive a compelling story.

Some of these prompts are accessible and instructive; others offer wonderfully evocative images and ideas. For ease of reference, I’ve grouped the prompts into several categories, but certainly some would fit into multiple boxes. It is my hope that these twenty-nine prompts–some specific, some quite open-ended–will help you jump-start any stalled works-in-progress and generate lots and lots of new material.Continue Reading

The Book That Changed My Country

Gran_calavera_eléctrica2I mostly sit at the window when I’m working at Café la Habana. I have a spot. It’s the same spot where I sat when my buddy, Santiago, first brought me for coffee when I arrived in Mexico City. But I’m attached to the spot for other reasons too. It’s also the spot where Roberto Bolaño used to write, and the same spot where Fidel Castro and Che were said to have planned their invasion of Cuba. Mostly I’m nosy though—I love to people watch—and that’s why I sit by the window. A few weeks ago, a waiter came up to me and placidly said, “Caballero, I suggest you move away from the glass.”Continue Reading

Episodia 2.10: Writing About Other People

Photo by Josef Steufer

Photo by Josef Steufer

I spent the past few years writing a memoir about a secret I kept throughout my adolescence, and the book is set to debut next Tuesday. When I was ten years old, a beloved piano teacher in my small hometown was accused of sexually assaulting his young female students. Much of the town couldn’t believe that a pillar of our community would commit such a crime, and many of the adults I knew as a child threw their lots in with him instead of the girls who dared tell the truth about what he’d done. As you might imagine, this caused me and many of my girlhood friends a swell of hurt we buried deep in our hearts—both those who spoke out against the piano teacher, and those who, like me, did not.

Mine is a story about a perpetrator, his victims, and a town full of people who chose sides. All of them are portrayed in the memoir, and most of them are still living. As I wrote the book, I felt the weight of portraying flesh-and-blood humans on the page. I wanted to get it right. I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted to uphold their dignity, when appropriate. And I often wondered—is that even possible?

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Found Wanting: A Memoir of Misreading” by Robert Howard

Howard-SoloCoverWe are proud to announce the publication of our newest Ploughshares solo, “Found Wanting: A Memoir of Misreading,” by Robert Howard. The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to first publish longer stories and essays in an affordable digital format, then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Collection. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos. Check in every month from August to May for new reading material!

About “Found Wanting: A Memoir of Misreading”

When Robert Howard is assigned James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his Catholic high school, his teacher, a Jesuit priest, announces, “Other people may read about it, but you are LIVING it!” Not surprisingly, the young Howard, growing up in 1970s Detroit, feels an intense identification with Joyce’s protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. Although separated by an ocean and almost a century, they share troubled family lives along with a tormented relationship with faith and sexual desire. After re-reading Portrait in middle age, Howard looks at his two very different responses to the novel, and what he noticed and didn’t notice when he was young. “Found Wanting” is part literary memoir, part reappraisal of a literary classic, and part skeptical look at the idea of art as a pathway to personal transformation.

This Solo is available on Kindle for $2.99.Continue Reading

The Power of An Author Who Can Share Her Insides

Prozac Nation Book CoverAt least sixteen years ago, maybe more, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and saw myself.

These days, it’s de rigueur to dismiss Wurtzel as a chaotic, self-involved mess. But back then, after receiving a diagnosis of chronic depression with bipolar tendencies, I ate up Wurtzel’s navel-gazing, book-length confessional. I read about her struggles with depression and, in a time when going to therapy was still a bit taboo to talk about, I began to feel a little bit less alone.Continue Reading

How Narrative Nonfiction Keeps Me Sane

into-the-wildYears ago, feeling creatively unfulfilled at my full-time publishing job, I took a continuing education class at The New School on pitching creative nonfiction to the glossy mags.

Throughout the course of the semester, we worked our way through Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalism, which contained a series of interviews about process with immersion journalists. Over the course of my reading, I was struck by the ways in which writers could use their craft as a means of experiencing worlds outside of their own, use their credentials as entree into experiences they’d always wanted to have. Suddenly introduced to the works of Susan Orlean and Jon Krakauer, I found myself intrigued.

I had already, unconsciously, been doing this as a sex writer, using my writing as a form of shock therapy in order to deal with the aftereffects of an abusive relationship. But my mind raced as I considered the possibilities. What more could I be doing?

After that class, I went on to garner invites to sexy soirees and porn parties. I posed nude for a painting. I found enlightenment at a yoga festival. I visited every vineyard in New Jersey.

But in the grand scheme of things, immersion journalism and other forms of narrative nonfiction, such as memoir, have done more for me as a reader than as a writer, allowing me to vicariously experience things I’d be too much of a wuss to ever even try, and to consider versions of life that generally feel out of reach.Continue Reading