Sunday, February 28, 2010

Friday, February 26, 2010

On Exposure in Memoir

As my final post of the week for Well-Read Donkey, I thought I'd write a few words on the whole question of what it means--and doesn't mean--to put oneself out there as a writer of memoir. I've been on the road this week promoting Devotion, and this question comes up again and again.

Do you feel exposed? An audience member will ask. Like you've revealed intimate details about yourself, your family, your inner life, for all the world to see and judge?

The truth is, I don't feel exposed, and I don't think most memoir writers feel exposed either. The act of writing memoir is one of crafting a story out of one's own life. That act--the ability to pick and choose details, to reveal precisely what one wants to reveal--is one of craft and control, of artistic purpose. Last night, at a reading I did in Corona del Mar, someone asked if when I was writing Devotion, it felt like I was writing in a journal. I was glad for the question, because it gave me a chance to talk about the profound, gargantuan difference between writing a memoir and writing in a journal. I have kept journals for many years, and believe me, if they were published I would feel exposed. I have used my journals as dumping grounds for the detritus of my life: my undigested thoughts and feelings, my boring rants and concerns and obsessions. Every once in a while, I think about burning them.

But memoir is something else altogether. Certainly, what's on the page is deeply personal. Certainly it means that people know certain facts of my life that they would otherwise have no way of knowing. But when someone reads one of my memoirs, what I feel most is that they are entering a story I have spent years building and polishing. It's not raw, nor is it confessional. What it is, more than anything, is best summed up in the words of Jane Kenyon: One soul, extending to another, saying "I've been there too."

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Truth and Love in Memoir: by Dani Shapiro

Last weekend I found myself having dinner with Ruth Reichl and her lovely husband Michael before an event at the Woodstock Writers Festival in upstate New York. Ruth delivered a talk on memoir that evening, and she said something remarkable, something that distilled for me the two most important things a memoirist must keep in mind: it all boils down to truth and love.

Truth and love. Truth, in the sense that of course when we write memoir, we are trying to hew closely--as closely as possible--to the truth of the story we're telling. Increasingly, the skepticism surrounding memoir concerns us. A student just asked me yesterday if it was all right, in a scene set in a Chinese restaurant, a memory of herself and her parents at age eleven, it was all right to make up the fortunes in the fortune cookies. I don't think this question would even have been asked ten years ago. Of course it's all right to make up the fortunes in the fortune cookies, as long as she's not pulling out a fortune of grave import, because that's part of what writing a memoir is. We don't remember dialogue--not exactly. We don't remember fortune cookies, or precise meals, or a slant of light. We reconstruct. We pull from the bin of memory -- which, believe me, is a very different bin from where fiction lives. A writer absolutely knows when she's making something up, and when she's attempting to excavate from memory.

So, truth. Simpler, in a sense, than love. By love, I think what we're talking about is loyalty, fidelity, betrayal. Privacy. We're writers, and we're writing about other people--people with private lives, people with their own stories, people who trusted us, or who once trusted us--and we are taking pieces of them and making them ours. That's simply the case. It is true, in the words of Janet Malcolm, that journalism is an act of betrayal. So what is to be done? How to be as careful as possible? What are the ethics of memoir?

Having written two memoirs now, I can speak to this in a different way than I could a number of years ago. Slow Motion is the story of my family. My father, mother, aunts, uncles were in that book. I wasn't yet a mother myself. My sociopathic criminal ex-boyfriend was in the book. (In fact, when the Random House attornies wanted to take out my reference to him as a "pathological liar", I was able to point to The New York Times, who had called him a pathological liar, right there in the paper of record.) My father was dead. My relatives, it seemed to me at the time, were fair game, and were relatively minor characters in the story. My mother, however, was another story. She was very much alive, and I didn't want to hurt her. I wanted to tell my story--a story which involved her deeply--but I wasn't interested in hurting her. Before I gave her the manuscript to read, I gave it to a friend--an older woman, a mother herself--and asked her to give it a "mother read". The friend underlined a few places where she thought I had been gratuitiously cruel. I cut them out. Then I gave the book to my mother.

I thought I knew what would sting her. I thought that some of the ways I portrayed myself--as a drinking, drugging, anorexic, depressed wreck of a girl--would bother her.
I was wrong.

There is a moment in Slow Motion during which my mother, from her hospital bed, her body shattered in eighty places, began suing people for perceived wrongdoing. She sued my uncle, my aunt, my half-sister, the insurance company, and my father's investment bank, Bear Stearns. When I showed my mother the draft of Slow Motion, she said: "I never sued Bear Stearns!"

I removed the offending reference to the investment bank, and learned an important lesson. We don't know what will hurt the people we love. We don't know what will wound them--what aspect of themselves they will see in something we've written and take offense. All I could do, in that case, was to be willing to show her the book before it was published, and to make changes, as long as I felt they were reasonable.

Years later--ten, to be precise--when I embarked on a second memoir, I had very different concerns in the love department. My mother was dead. My father was long-dead. I was concerned about one person, one very small person, and that was my little boy, who had not asked to be born of a mother who writes. In order to write Devotion, I needed to be able to write about my experience of being his mother, and about an illness he suffered as an infant. Will he turn to me, some day, and accuse me of invading his privacy? I hope and pray not. Right now, he sits at my readings, proud to be a part of his mom's book. All we can do is be careful -- we are people who love other people, and we are writers who explore our lives. We walk that line, swaying, stumbling, sometimes falling, righting ourselves. The awareness seems, to me, the most important thing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Write Memoir?

I have just published my second memoir, and here's the thing: I never thought I would write a second memoir. My first memoir, Slow Motion, was published in 1998, and I thought I was quite done with the form. I was a novelist, after all. Most comfortable in the world of my imagination, most fully alive when following a trail of breadcrumbs through a forest of fiction. When I wrote Slow Motion, my impetus was clear. I had a story to tell, a story that seemed to be taking over my fiction, hijacking it. My parents had been in a devastating car crash when I was in my early twenties. My father, killed. My mother, physically and emotionally shattered. And I, at the age of twenty-three, had been making a mess of my own life (married boyfriend, drugs, booze, didn't see the point of finishing college) and had to rise to the profoundly painful occasion. I grew up fast. I saw that I had only one choice, which was to turn my life around. And so--in taking care of my mother, going back to college, quitting the married man, the drugs and booze, I turned, also, to the page. I wrote the first of my three novels--a highly-autobiographical, coming-of-age account. It was published while I was still in graduate school -- followed by two more novels, all perfectly decent, all showing some promise, but all--I can say this now--haunted by my lack of understanding of my own personal material. I wrote Slow Motion because my fiction was suffering. Each book contained a "crash" of some sort -- a devastating, sudden catastrophe. I was being led around by my story. I wanted to switch places, and be the one leading my story around, in control of it. And so I wrote Slow Motion.

It turned out that I was right. Slow Motion did put that story, the one most alive inside of me, to rest. I had taken control of it, told it as truthfully as I could. I had done something that felt redemptive: marshaled the facts of my own story and crafted them into something larger, something universal. I had made art (at least I hope I did) out of tragic loss. And really, what a spectacular thing to be able to do -- attempt to make art out of loss. Anyone who does this can only consider herself deeply fortunate. Everyone in the world suffers. Not everyone gets to push beyond the boundaries of that suffering.

I moved on. I found that I had grown, as a novelist. My next two novels were not haunted by the material of my earlier life. My themes deepened. But then, shortly after the publication of my last novel, Black & White, I was in the midst of my yoga practice one day when an idea for a new book arrived, as if written in neon. It came, as none of my other books had come to me, complete with a title: Devotion. I realized, while standing in tree pose, that I wanted to write a book about belief. What did I believe? Did I believe in anything at all? I had been raised in a deeply religious family, and had fled all that at the earliest opportunity. Now, I was the mother of a young son who had been asking me a lot of questions. Did I believe in God? What happens when we die? Is there a heaven? I realized, with a certain degree of horror, that I wanted to explore these questions and write about them.

Another memoir? Apparently so. Joan Didion once wrote that her material presents itself to her with a shimmer around the edges of it. This had that shimmer. There was no denying it, or mistaking it. And so I began. I began with trepidation, with resistance, with concern that writing about spiritual matters is perhaps the most intimate, most difficult thing to do well. But it didn't feel I had much choice. Our books choose us.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guest Post from Robin Black; How One Book Became a Book

My first book, If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, is coming out next month, which is thrilling for me and scary and also means I talk about the book a lot more than I ever have before or ever dreamed I would. It's a collection of unlinked stories and a lot of beginning writers have asked me recently when and how I knew it was a book - as opposed to just a bunch of stories. The short answer is that I worked on these stories for a good four years, maybe longer, before ever admitting I was trying to write a book. There's also a long answer, of course.

At first I just wanted to write a single good story. (My definition of "good" back then was that other people had to like it.) I hear a lot of writing students say "I'm writing a collection," before they've completed a single piece. I'm not at all saying this is wrong for them - but it would have been wrong for me. When I started writing seriously, at the age of 39, after a hiatus of many years, I felt incredible insecurity and definite doubt about my ability to write even one story that even one person would like. So that was my ambition, and in fact that's exactly what I did. I wrote one story that one person liked. I marched it off to a workshop and twelve of the thirteen participants hated it - but one guy thought it was great. I had reached my goal (Congratulations?) Not too spurprisingly, that didn't seem to satisfy me much at all. So, after that, I tweaked my goal to have less to do with counting yeas and nays and more to do with just writing as well as I possibly could.

The problem was, I had no idea how to do that. Back then, before being in a workshop long-term, before my MFA program, before I developed a higher level of self-consciousness for better and worse, stories seemed to just arrive on my keyboard - or not. There wasn't a huge element of volition involved. It felt more like being seized with some kind of fever for a few days, a fever that produced a first draft. (I sometimes miss those days. . . ) So again, the idea of designing a book was a completely alien one. How can you consciously construct a book of stories if you can't even figure out what's making you write them, if you feel entirely passive in the process, like a person possessed? For me, the answer was that I couldn't.

But then, within a few years, I was in grad school at Warren Wilson, working toward my MFA, and though we talked about theses - in my case four stories - we all knew we were aiming toward books. Yet still, I would deny it, saying that my stories "didn't play well together." Whatever their individual merits, I would say, they weren't meant to be collected. I had my well-prepared explanations having to do with themes and with styles but mostly, now what I think is that I was terrified that if I admitted I was writing a book, I would freeze in my tracks. I'd always been bad at finishing projects. If I couldn't complete a crocheted scarf, how would I ever finish a book? And I felt presumptuous. I'd been home with my kids for nearly two decades. I was a forty-something woman with no professional background of any kind. Who was I to call myself an author - which felt very different to me from someone who wrote short stories. And, maybe most of all, admitting I was writing a book would make me vulnerable to a kind of disappointment I just couldn't face. I didn't aim as high as I might have because I didn't want to fail - in large part because I was afraid it would make me quit writing; and writing, it turned out, made me happy in a way I had never been before.

Eventually, after experiencing enough failure, enough rejection to know it wouldn't stop me and after gaining my MFA, I did admit what I was doing. I was writing a book. A collection of unlinked stories. And if it didn't find an appreciative audience, I knew would keep writing anyway. I might feel bad, but I wouldn't feel invalid or as though I had to quit.

That was about five years after the first workshop I walked into.

When I tell this story to people who are just starting out, I think it disappoints them. It all sounds so passive - on my part - such a mish-mosh of neuroses and nascent skill sets crowding each other out, quarreling among themselves. But it shouldn't worry or disappoint anyone. It's just my story. Just another example of how different a process this is for each of us, how different a process it is meant to be. And the point is, whatever I thought I was doing, I kept writing. And writing. And writing. So maybe, if you too feel at times as though you really have no plan about where it's all leading - as I felt for so, so long - my story may help you remember that it very well may be leading exactly where it's meant to go, even so.

Friday, February 5, 2010

STAIRCASE THOUGHTS: Third and Final Guest Post by Katharine Weber

I look forward to seeing any of you who can come to Kepler’s next week on Thursday, the 11th, where I will be delighted to continue any of these conversations with you. Here’s a change of pace for today.

The French call it l'esprit d'escalier, stairway wit. The witty thing you should have said that occurs to you only as you descend the stairs at the end of the evening. As a novelist, I find that I have these staircase thoughts about each of my novels, even though my first novel was published in 1995, which is getting longer ago all the time.

Sometimes it is a question of reading a small item in a newspaper, or hearing a story, or learning one more little factoid about an arcane subject you were keenly interested in a few years ago because of what you were writing at the time. Sometimes it’s an inspiration a few years past pub date sparked by something in a novel, or in a movie. Sometimes it is just a spontaneous thought about a wonderful detail that would have been just right to illuminate further some moment in a novel, some aspect of a character.

For example, the middle section of my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, takes place in a New York suburban neighborhood very much inspired by my childhood surroundings, Forest Hills Gardens. As Harriet Rose bicycles through those "Oxbridge Gardens" streets, it would have been just right for her to observe the uncanniness of a certain Forest Hills Gardens street corner a block from my childhood home: the intersection of Winter and Summer.

With True Confections, I keep learning candy facts and lore. I regret very much that I didn’t know how Milk Duds and Black Crows each got their names while I was writing the novel. I completely forgot about Chunky. I didn’t go into the history of the Goldenberg Peanut Chew. I didn't consider a whole little episode that I can envision perfectly now about Alice playing fast and loose with requirements for Kosher certification of the candy.

Also, True Confections is not only about chocolate and a crazy family. There is also a part of the story that takes place in Madagascar over several generations. Although I mentioned orb weaver spiders, and Merina people, I did not know about the history of Madagascar spider silk-weaving. Producing spider silk requires dozens of people collecting spiders daily (using long poles) from their legendary webs strung across telephone wires, during the rainy season, which is when they produce silk. Trained people then draw out the silk from the immobilized female spiders. (Somebody has to determine the gender of these spiders first. So what do you call these jobs on your resume? Spider sexing? Spider milking? Spider silking?) An Orb Weaver spider's silk gland can produces some 80 feet of golden silk filament at a time. I dearly wish I had woven some spider silk into my novel.

What are your staircase thoughts about your writing?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

REALITY VS. IMAGINATION: more from Katharine Weber

Continuing the conversation about what is real in a novel:

Monday night I gave a talk about True Confections at Yale to a highly educated audience. There was a lively discussion, with a lot of fun questions about candy and candy history (ask me about Lifesavers! Ask me about Black Crows!), as well as questions about how I wrote the book and what sort of research I did. It became evident that a number of people present thought that Zip’s Candies was a real candy company, or at the very least a thinly-disguised fictional version of a real company, while at the same time many (if not most) of the people there assumed I had invented The Madagascar Plan. Tuesday morning I taped an interview with the host of a popular Connecticut Public Radio affiliate. As we compared the nougat and peanut ratios in Baby Ruth, O Henry! And Snickers bars I had brought into the studio, she said that she had assumed that I made up The Madagascar Plan.

Sadly, I did not invent the Madagascar Plan. The credit goes to the Third Reich. An early version of the plan to locate all the Jews of Europe on Madagascar had been championed by Hermann Göring in 1938, but it was not until 1940 that the Plan gained sufficient momentum to become a near-reality. The Nazi official who masterminded the details was Franz Rademacher, the leader of the Judenreferat III der Abteilung Deutschland (aka Jewish Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). He wrote a memo outlining the logistical details in which he declared (in German, of course), "The desirable solution is: all Jews out of Europe." He proposed that the Jews transported to Madagascar would be useful hostages to help make guarantee "future good behavior of the members of their race in America."

Plans for this Jurassic Park for Jews fell apart when the British fleet was not available for transport after all (which is to say when the British did not lose the Battle of Britain, as anticipated by the Third Reich). And so this first solution was abandoned, and instead there was the Final Solution.

What does the Madagascar Plan have to do with True Confections, a novel Booklist declared has “a wacky comic sensibility” and the Cleveland Plain Dealer called “a hoot with an edge”? In my novel, Julius Czaplinsky, the left-behind younger brother of Eli (founder of Zip's Candies in New Haven, Connecticut in 1924), gets wind of the Plan, and so he leaves Budapest for Madagascar to get there ahead of the crowd, to stake a claim and get established before the other four million Jews of Europe show up. And so he does just that. But of course there are no ships on the horizon. Ever. He is the first, last, and only Jew on Madagascar.

But true to Ziplinsky form, he thrives and prospers, even in this unlikely setting. After the war, his remarkable cacao and vanilla plantations bring the next generations of Zip’s Candies Ziplinskys together with the next generations of Madagascar Czaplinskys, with very complex consequences.

And so I didn’t exactly rewrite history (unlike, for example, Michael Chabon’s very entertaining Yiddish Policeman’s Union, about a colony of “Frozen Chosen” in Alaska) so much as tuck my fiction neatly into an actual historic event.

Everywhere I go for readings and discussions of True Confections, I learn that many readers have assumed that the Madagascar Plan is fiction, while also believing that Zip’s Candies is real. I am bemused. Why are so many readers looking for reality in all the wrong places?