Month: September 2014

Past as Prologue


Often, when I sit down to write these commentaries, I find myself thinking about genre. Mostly, I keep asking myself what it is that I’m doing here, in this space, and whether the presence of craft analysis in the blogosphere means something about how I should approach my task. And if so, what is that something? I wonder if the informality of the medium suggests more informality in my writing. Maybe I should be including cat photos. Maybe I should be quippier. But, on the other hand, maybe I should be more oblique and artful and essayist-like. Such are the questions and suggestions of a preface: here’s the problem I faced, and here’s how I decided to approach it. And, oh yeah, here’s the key that unlocks all of the puzzles scattered throughout the work itself. [Insert key, once I know what it is].


Once, a famous kind of literary agent (someone who represents books you’d recognize, even if you’re not a reader of literary fiction or nonfiction) told me my writing reminded her of Mark Doty. Probably, I’m mentioning that just to mention that, because any kind of equation between the magnificent artfulness of his writing and the rusted clunk of my own is unearned praise that puffs my ego in welcoming ways. Were I to get a tattoo, I’d probably have some cursive script wrap up my forearm, he writes like Mark Doty. An important side note and metaphorical completion to this prelude: this agent, later, declined to represent my writing in a rather dismissive and categorically unimpressed manner.

Chapter One: On Prologues

Of all the things I like about Descanso For My Father, one thing I don’t is the prologue. I imagine it was written either because an editor demanded it, or as part of the materials Fletcher used to find a publisher for the collection. As with so many prologues, it declares itself too assuredly. It spoils the design, because it foregrounds precisely what the following art object is. It’s like the answers that lay in the back of my high school calculus text, which I usually looked at first, so I didn’t have to bother doing the math. But, in calculus, book designers got wise, only putting the odd-numbered answers in, and the calc teacher knew that, so he usually assigned the even-numbered questions, unless he was feeling particularly generous or, perhaps, despondent at the way the class had been recently butchering its homework. Either way, at least part of the mystery was gone. Worse, the elimination of the mystery made me think I understood the rest of the questions, too, a fallacy that became epically clear when I scored a perfect 0/25 on a multiple choice exam, a statistical impossibility that could have demonstrated artful mastery of mathematics coupled with subversive protest: I won’t play this game. In fact, the zero demonstrated the rounder, harsher truth of zero, of nothingness, of an honest attempt that revealed absolute absence. Thus, my mathematical prologue: every day, my best friend and I went to the math lab over lunch, where we sat for an hour and bullshitted with my calc teacher about golf and football and how tall he was and how, yeah, we should probably be using this time to study calc but we’re not.

Chapter Two: On Preludes

I think I actually just wrote a prelude in chapter one, at least according to the calculus of Mark Doty’s Firebird, which includes a pre-chapter that carries the more gestural title of “prelude.” Instead of a direct explanation of what should be understood, he instead offers a nuanced story of discovering a “perspective box” created by Dutch painter Samuel von Hoogstraten. He describes how the interior appears distorted and twisted and all wrong until the viewer looks through one of two corrective lenses, at which point the pictures inside rectify into a perfect rendition of a Dutch home and all that happens within (I want to note: Doty writes of finding this box while killing time before an award ceremony, in which he later reports winning a prize for his writing, which I am right now going to equate to my own trumpet-blare a few paragraphs ago; I’m feeling bad about bragging, so I’m either bringing Doty down with me or trying to lift myself up (again) through comparison). The effect of Doty’s prelude is to offer a mostly-metaphorical and, therefore, powerful commentary on the nature of memoir, without ever declaring, this is the nature of memoir. He writes fully of the box, and fully of the contents of the box, leading in the end to a discussion of a hidden “boy lost in a book, which is itself a tiny box” (6). Doty is still writing about art here, about the effect of distortions, and the inevitability of distortions, and how von Hoogstraten purposefully melted images around walls so that, when viewed through the proper lens, they resolved. But this boy, in this other box, reads of his family: “His book angles and skews them by artifice, and then tries to use artifice to set them right” (6).

Chapter 3: Resolution

Of course, the boy with the book is Doty. He makes that clear. The single sentence paragraph before he describes the boy reads, fully: “The museum vanishes” (6). Once gone, we are left with the boy and the book, and some brief contextual information (drafting tools, loneliness), clues that will appear later in the memoir itself. So there’s no trickery here, just a bit of distortion/artifice that helps the reader understand the elaborate metaphor that makes up the bulk of the prelude. This will be a book, Doty declares, that will meld the discovery of boxes with the discovery of the self, and you might not ever quite know which is which, but I will tell you which is which if you pay close attention because, in fact, my act of memoir cannot be written without the close proximity of art and experience, as my own life is a distortion and my memoir the lens through which it must be seen, in order to understand the truth I am seeking to find.


Holding It All Together

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been teaching Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s essay “The Beautiful City of Tirzah” for several years, thanks to its inclusion in the superb anthology of creative nonfiction called (not so creatively) The Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. In that book, Fletcher’s author bio identifies him as working on a collection of essays called Man in a Box. I’ve been thinking about that working title for the year or so that I’ve known of his first book, the Descanso for my Father that I’ve been writing about over the last two weeks. Since “Tirzah” is included in this book, and since it is his only book thus far, and since one of the essays in Descanso happens to be called “Man in a Box,” I have a hunch that Descanso once carried a different working title. And with that little factoid, here goes.

“Man in a Box” is physically in the middle of Descanso. It is, by far, the longest essay included (37 pages; “Tirzah” is the second-longest at 14). And it serves as the central hinge of the collection. Everything before “Man in a Box” writes toward the essay, and everything after it writes…well…after it.

On one very facile hand, I see Descanso ending its structural unity at the moment that “Man in a Box” comes to a close on page 104, or 105 if you count the photograph of, presumably, Fletcher’s mother. The essay finishes the arc of thought that animates the preceding pages. Certain moments offer echoes of previous images — an important component of effective collections — and other moments offer crucial fleshing out of the lyric material that has preceded it, even as the essay itself remains firmly lyric. Perhaps most notably, in “Man in a Box” Fletcher writes directly of the process of his search for his father. We see the stage directions, that he is traveling to different places very much to find his father, that he is actively trying to put the pieces together, that the book you hold in your hands is the result of this very search. “I assemble my father,” he writes. “Bit by bit a composite forms” (87). The sum of the long essay and the preceding shorter ones is that composite, which feels both satisfying and complete.

So the question that animates my writing in this space fixates on the notion of a “collection” of essays, and more pointedly, on how much a collection needs to hold together as a book and how much latitude it has to just be, y’know, a collection of things. In hearing essayist Brian Doyle read and speak last spring, I was struck by how he described his own process of book making as, more or less, collecting together thirty of the short pieces he’d recently written. Now, I think Doyle practiced careful self-deprecation in that moment, as his own collections show the hand of an assembler making a thing of each collection. But, at the same time, there’s truth within his description. Doyle’s books are closer to loose collections than fully cohesive units. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that model of essay collection; however, the most satisfying collections, whether fiction of nonfiction, are those that do create a unified sum within their parts. While there isn’t necessarily a common arc, there is an accumulation of fragments that lead to a clearer mosaic, the same sort of “composite” formed when Fletcher pieces together his father.

Thus, if I apply the requirement of cohesiveness to Fletcher’s collection, and if I wish to claim that the unifying arc of that cohesion of fragments is the building of the father composite, Descanso doesn’t quite work as a single thing. Rather, I would have to argue that the essays appearing after “Man in a Box” read as essays that are delivered without the steam and tension that drove those earlier in the collection. The man has been assembled, and the rest is a lengthy denouement with only oblique relationship to the rest. And if I look at the subject matters of these final six essays, I find the sudden and vibrant appearance of Fletcher’s wife, and his son, and a lot more about his mother, and a lot less about his father.

Yet, even as I have felt that twinge of disconnection in reading Descanso, I am not willing to diminish the book as being the sort of collection that just kind of brings stuff together. Nor am I willing to criticize it as being 100 or so pages of a book, filled in with B sides. (Though I understand that I’m throwing those ideas out here, which gives them a touch of credibility, even as I will, now, refute the ideas I have introduced). The problem with this view — my problem, really — is tied up with the old title. I can’t help but think about this book as being Man in a Box. If it were, well, then the criticisms would hold. But Fletcher has titled it Descanso for my Father, and he has defined “descanso” usefully and artfully in the prologue in a way that helps me understand the bookishness of this collection.

Yes, Descanso is about the assembly of the father, but it is mostly about the assembly of the author. Indeed, the first half of the book must preoccupy itself with the project that, no doubt, inspired the initial writing. Fletcher wanted to fill in the gaps of the man he finds in the pictures and clippings inside the box kept in the closet that Tirzah led him to (that sentence read to the tune of, “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”). And he did that. And in doing it, he closed the gaps enough in the primary search to recognize the need for a more fundamental one, that of the self. Throughout the essays in the book, Fletcher keeps running up against his own image, reflected in glass, in wood, in eyes. He keeps looking for his father and finding himself, but not quite recognizing it.

Ultimately, then, “Man in the Box” is the essay that lets him lay aside the initial search and venture toward the new one. He writes after that essay about those elements that have shaped him. Or, perhaps, he writes about these elements as a means to discover his own shape. Back to the prologue, where he writes: “In middle age, a father, few things frighten me more than the notion of being forgotten or remaining a mystery to my son and daughter. It is my hope with this collection to write a descanso for the father I never knew, each essay an offering on the path to find him, to find myself” (6). The end of that quote makes me feel a bit dumb — Fletcher told me exactly what he was up to. Yet the force of the image of the father is so powerful to me as a reader, and to him as a writer, that it consumes the first half of the book. I find it remarkable that the construction of the collection demonstrates in its very construction the nature of that power. As readers, we are led into the totality of his search in ways similar to Fletcher’s own obsession. Only in satisfying that first tension can we move forward. And, yeah, it’s a bit disappointing to lose that tension…but only because it’s something we’ve lived with for so long, for 100 pages. For Fletcher, the assembly is something he lived with for 40-some years, and I can imagine that the “solution” of the father puzzle felt like both relief and let down. Now what?

The rest of the book. Which begins the essai toward a Harrison Candelaria Fletcher who can turn the lens of discovery in new directions. As readers, we follow that arc with him.

Haunting Trust

Credibility is one of the most important qualities of an effective memoir, yet sometimes the truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

Tara Caimi, “Privileged Perspective in Memoir”

Among the many things I admire so much in Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanco for my Father is the deft handling of dreams and ghosts. More accurately, my admiration rests in Fletcher’s ability to make a case for haunting as a presence within his essays, not as imagined or delusional, but as significant moments of truth-telling. Now, I understand that many readers are likely predisposed to the quick discounting of dreams or ghosts, probably equating ghosts as dreams. Moreover, many are likely to question the credibility of a writer who lays claim to the truth of hauntings. Yet in Descanso, Fletcher makes artful and frequent use of hauntings, and partly because of the technique of his writing and partly because of the force of his reflections, the hauntings exist on the page as equivalent to the “actual” action of the characters.

The first haunting occurs on page 32, in “Among the Broken Angels,” an essay that reveals itself, ultimately, to be framed by the story of Fletcher and his mother traveling to visit graves. These present tense scenes are interspersed with past tense ones, which is where the hauntings happen:

“Sixty miles southeast, in the village of Corrales, Abenicio Perea, my great-grandfather, dozed off in his broad iron bed when a voice whistled into his room.

“‘Estoy muerto!’

“Abenicio reached over to shake his wife.

“‘It’s Juan,’ he whispered. ‘Juan Mora'” (32)

In an essay pre-occupied with the nature of spirits, of the fear and desire of connecting with the dead, and with the general concept of hauntings, Fletcher presents this move into the past with the seeming insignificance of verb tense. Charting the opening of the essay, we see the first two sections appear in present tense, the narrative that includes Fletcher and his mother. The third and fourth move into the past, first in telling the story of Mora’s death then in the recounting of his presence after death; the scene above happens in the fourth section. What I find remarkable about this tense shifting is how Fletcher creates a clear and, at the same time, easy-to-miss separation between the experientially known and imaginative reconstruction. That which happens in the past is imagined.

I’ll pause there for a second, having just written that sentence and been struck by its ambiguity. After all, isn’t this the very stuff of memoir: the past is imagined, at least in some ways. Recollection, then, is always partly fabrication, much as we’ve seen in considering Patricia Hampl. The duality of my inadvertent sentence, then, is crucial. The past tense refers to imagined events from the past, which is not to say that imagined recollections are false. Indeed, the ease in which Fletcher slides between present and past tense suggests the closeness of those events. His reliable narration of memoir (the present tense) and reliable recounting of other’s stories (past tense) are read as a continuous line.

But he has chosen to make this differentiation, even as he has chosen to signal it without firm declarations along the lines of, my mother told me a story that goes like this. In fact, the subtlety of that differentiation does much of the work of trust building in the essay (and by trust, I refer to narrative trust: that we believe in the story Fletcher tells, which is the subject of the article by Caimi that I reference as epigraph). By creating an implication of the absolute in the recounting of these stories, Fletcher argues for their validity. But also, notably, by narrating hauntings only through the stories of others (throughout the book), Fletcher retains for himself a credibility most readers would not question. While this isn’t a sentiment I share, more readers are likely to discount a writer who claims to have experienced hauntings than one who recounts, even believes, the stories of others. Certainly, part of the power of this rhetorical move is also born of the facts of experience, since Fletcher has not experienced hauntings of the literal sort, only the desire for them.

Back to tense: consider the way verbs work in signaling the position of narrator in creative nonfiction, particularly in light of the then-now construct of the genre. Essays work because they let writers populate two moments of his or her own narrative experiences, to present “the reader with a view of the story from two perspectives at once” (Caimi 33). Present tense, however, offers only limited space for reflection, because the immediacy of the action prohibits the time necessary to make sense of it. Past tense, in contrast, allows a writer to both narrate and reflect: time has passed between the event and the writing, so narration and reflection can happen together.

Fletcher, then, presents a grounding story that is absent reflection. He is with his mother, experiencing. The stories are the space of reflection and, in fact, the mechanism that will allow him to make sense of his mother’s relationship to death. It is not the act of experience that allows him to reflect. Instead, it is the act of haunting that opens space for him to begin to reckon experience: “When I stand among those identical white markers laid as tight as false teeth, I’m numb to my emotions. But here, among the broken angels, I feel all the sorrow and love I’ve tried so hard to summon for him” (34). It is only through the combination of experience (present) and family story (the haunted past) that Fletcher can begin to access the emotional core that drives this journey.

As always, I am struck by essays that intersect formal structural decisions with emotional impact. And that’s precisely what Fletcher delivers in this essay and in the collection in general. On one hand, the move between tenses is a way for him to signal the two braids of an essay. But on the other, it opens up space to invite readers into the same position where he finds himself near the end of this essay: “I stand stock-still, straining to hear it, or feel it, a presence in the land, a current of spirit and memory from which we can draw to fill the spaces within” (43).

As readers and writers, that’s a position of openness to which we should all aspire.

The Structure of Lyric Logic

Half a year ago or so, I was having a conversation with a group of writers about two memoirs: the lyrically-written and arranged Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, and a well-done but conventionally-structured memoir. One comment stuck in my craw and has lingered ever since. One of the other writers declared Fletcher’s book “interesting” in its structure, but “something poets have been doing forever.” This was delivered with a note of finality, and more than a little disdain. And it was spoken as a definitive reason why this speaker preferred the other book. My own opinions were precisely opposite. In comparing two books written with such fine prose, it was the structural play of Descanso that carried the day.

Yet that disdain…”something poets have been doing forever.” I understand the comment, and I don’t disagree. The structure of Descanso and, broadly, the lyric essay borrow heavily from the intuitive leaps of poetry. As I often say in fumbling to define the lyric essay, it is the gaps between two elements that allow a spark to fire, in engines and in writing. Lyric essays work because they bring material close enough to allow intuitive meaning, for reader and writer. And, let there be no mistake, my favorite essayists operate with a heavy use of gap: Annie Dillard, Lia Purpura, Brian Doyle, Brenda Miller el al. Descanso fits into this category easily, with the lyric arrangement of individual essays creating layers of meaning: the interplay between titles and vignettes in “White” and “Relics,” the numbered sections of “Man in a Box,” the flight of the owl in “Beautiful City of Tirzah.” And the collection itself creates a fuller, more complex sense of meaning and density through the repetition of image (what Charles Baxter calls “rhyming action”) and through the air creates between essays. In this assembly, the sum of the essays executes a different mathematics than the simple collection of units.

Yet that disdain… “something poets have been doing forever…” as an explanation of a collection’s limitations instead of its mastery, as a claim of derivative sub-quality… this is something I cannot understand, and with which I absolutely disagree. In fact, part of the beauty of lyric form in nonfiction writing is the recognition that artful arrangement of experience yields new gaps and, therefore, new understanding.

Lyric assembly creates tremendous power for a line like: “To fetch her, I must reach into the darkness, brushing my father’s things” (Fletcher 17). Viewed through the narrow lens of experiential explanation, that line means what it means: a young Harrison had to touch his dead father’s old belongings in a darkened closet. By grace of the assembly of that essay, and through the sequencing and invention of the whole Descanso, the line becomes so much more. It is a line of lyric electricity, the narrating Harrison and the young Harrison both reaching into a dark space, one literally into a closet and the other remembering reaching into that closet, one recognizing now that this moment led him to merely brush the surface of knowability and the other, as a child, registering a synaptic impulse at the moment that, later, could be unlocked through the act of writing.

Or in “Among the Broken Angels,” consider how these two lines work together:

“She has taken me as far as she can, or wants to go” (43).


“I stand stock-still, straining to hear it, or feel it, a presence in the land, a current of spirit and memory from which we can draw to fill the spaces within” (43).

Again, there are both literal and lyric intentions to these lines. At surface, they are about a tired mother no longer able to continue a journey with Harrison among graves, and about the author trying to listen to the silent messages of those graves. More importantly, the lines indicate the author’s recognition that his mother functions as a guide toward the discovery he hopes to make and that, now, he must move himself to find what he senses will satisfy the desire of his search. Essays build, then, with Fletcher gathering items — the portraits he references in his prologue — building momentum for the longest essay of the book, “Man in a Box” and, ultimately, to this line: “I assemble my father. Bit by bit a composite forms.” This assembly is not linear, and it is not built merely from an accumulation of facts. Instead, the composite is about the search for items that can be interpreted, intuited, made into the lyric expression of a father both long lost and always present.

The central motivation for my fellow writer’s disdain, I think, is the hard-to-shake residue of “factuality” always assigned to the field of nonfiction, whether or not the descriptor of “creative” is included. And I find it significant that this writer happened to be a poet who, eventually, wrote a memoir. I mean no insult to poets, but instead to suggest that sometimes writers from other genres slum it in the nonfiction world without a deep understanding of the traditions and contemporary impulses of the form (and, I should say, many of the great contemporary nonfiction writers came from other genres, and many from poetry, where the lyric impulse of that genre translates nicely from verse to prose). Indeed, a cursory glance at what “nonfiction” means in the lexicon of, say, the NYT Bestseller list illustrates exactly what I’m trying to say. A screen-shot of the current top 5:

NF Top 5

Of these five, none fits the definition of lyric, and really none is what I’m talking about when I talk about memoir or creative nonfiction, though In the Kingdom of Ice comes perhaps close. The point is, of course, that Descanso‘s form is, curiously, belittled when it borrows from poetry precisely because the popular definition of nonfiction is so limiting and, generally, dully factual. Or dumbly ephemeral, in the case of, say, Unphiltered. Very much because so many think nonfiction is this one thing that it has always been (but really hasn’t) no latitude for lyric space is afforded, even by serious writers who ought to know better.

I’ve entered the gravity of soapboxing now, but I’ll indulge that for another moment. Reading Descanso offers a wonderful example of the power lying within the “true narrative” to exceed the boundaries of both narrative and the rigorous assembly of fact. Instead, the application of lyric logic gives Descanso the kind of artistic zing that we describe when we utter the word “literary.”

Owls and Artifacts of Memory

In a past that shouldn’t seem as distant as it feels, my father and I traveled the woods together. I walked beside him as he pointed out flashes of color. I waited in the dark as we called to owls. I awakened early, in murky dawns, to visit smelly salt marshes and fix spotting scopes on wading birds. These memories flicker at the edge of my past, appearing as suddenly as the first live owl I ever saw. Late at night, I rode beside my father in his GMC. We wore black trash bags as improvised ponchos, and the rain outside continued to fall as it had all day. Under a canopy of trees, the night seemed absolute, barely ruptured by the truck’s headlights. Above us, then, appearing like a portent, or an angel, or bolt of feathered energy, a Great Horned Owl hovered. His mottled underbelly glided just above the windshield, for a moment so brief it survives only as memory, not story. Then it disappeared.

Matthew Ferrence, “Spaces Between”

Here now, in the last twitches of summer, where weather has turned quickly from a cool summer to solidified autumn, a Barred Owl has taken to calling from the woods near my house. The call first appeared a bit more than a week ago, the familiar four beat syncopation, hmm hmm hm-hmmmmm. I awoke that first night, cool air streaming through the open window, the clock declaring it half past three, and I listened while the owl called into the night. Last night, the owl called again, as it did two nights before as well, wresting me from sleep now even through closed windows. This is not a loud call, the owl clearly perching not in my yard or the neighbors, but down the street, where the road ends and a swatch of ravine separates the small city from forest. But I hear it, wake to it, something about the tonality of owls that cannot be ignored, something about the owl that calls to me alone.

“The point of the recollection of thing, person or event is in large part to reinhabit, to some degree, the former self,” Sven Birkerts writes in The Art of Time in Memoir (26). So it is with owls for me, this most recent night call an echo of other appearances. And reading today, I find myself thinking about these words from Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s prologue to his collection, Descanso For My Father: “Gazing down at the artifacts, I began to assemble portraits. From the portraits, narratives” (Fletcher 5). I do not intend to write my own narrative here, that of owls calling out from so many nighttimes to so many versions of myself, though I do expect to be haunted by owls for the remainder of my life, haunted in much the same way Fletcher writes of spirits visiting members of his family after death. No, indeed, my intention is to write myself toward a brief discussion of the power of the owl named Tirzah, the most crucial character in the lead essay of the collection, called “Beautiful City of Tirzah.”

This autumn marks the fourth I have taught that essay, but the first that I have taught it as part of a study of the recently-published collection. And I must report that I find the essay near-perfect, as fine an example of recognizing the power of metaphor circling a life as I can find. The motion of Tirzah in the essay leads both reader and narrator toward objects of note. Owls are, as grandmother Desolina declares, omens, if not bad, at least “messengers of the night” (11) as she tells the childhood Harrison, narrator of the essay. Structurally, it is precisely the motion and effect of the singular owl, Tirzah, that I find so fascinating.

Tirzah directs the eye, avoiding young Harrison for so many pages because he is not prepared to follow the owl where he needs to go. Instead, she gives peace and hope to his mother, memory of youth to his grandfather, sense of purpose to his brother. Or, rather, Tirzah doesn’t avoid Harrison: the avoidance goes the other way, the boy too timid and unsure to embrace the bird. His first touch, even, is with the tip of a pencil. But then, finally, an opening…literally, to the closet door within which the possessions of the narrator’s dead father are collected: “Tirzah, gazing toward the opening from her perch, flutters atop the closet door. I hold my breath. My sister calls our mother. Normally, the closet is off limits to us kids. We try to shoo Tirzah away, but she won’t budge. She just stares into the cool abyss. After a moment, she lowers her head and hops inside. From then on, the hall closet becomes her sanctuary. To fetch her, I must reach into darkness, brushing my father’s things” (16-17). Literally, the action of the owl is to lead young Harrison into that darkness, to force him to reach — without sight — and make contact with the clothing left behind. Structurally, the move signals the space between the then and now of memoir, of which Birkerts writes as being central to the meaning-making of the genre. The owl leads the author to reconcile the memory of the past with the meaning of the past.

Describing that move doesn’t do it justice, because the lyricism of the essay is staggering. There are no breaks to the narrative, no clumsy moves to declare what things mean. In fact, the very nature of this essay is to avoid declarations. It is, instead, a groping toward the beginning of knowledge, a slow recognition of the desire to know a man who can hardly be remembered. Tirzah is, in this light, both omen and oracle. Yet she is also purely owl, revealed later in the piece at the expense of a meadowlark.

For a long time, this essay has struck me with its beauty. As a stand-alone piece, it serves as an exemplar of what the essayistic impulse is all about. But as the lead piece to a collection, it serves as so much more. “Beautiful City of Tirzah” locates the moment of departure for the author, that moment in life when a single portrait began to shape the desire for narrative. Reaching into that darkness is the moment when, in the words of Birkerts, “pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience” (49). From this starting point, then, Fletcher establishes the position of the book, that of the confused young boy, seeking knowledge, afraid to touch it, yet reaching into the darkness. This, too, is the position of the memoirist, beginning to first recognize the way moments will assemble to reveal a clarifying, if not unifying, narrative.

I think, then, of my own owls, and of Fletcher’s prologue definition of the roadside memorials he has witnessed in New Mexico: “However they originated, historians agreed: a descanso marks the ground of an interrupted journey, the spot where a man, woman, or child died unexpectedly, the point at which a spirit left its body. A descanso reminds us to pray for a soul in purgatory. It is a manifestation of unexpressed grief, a communication, a eulogy, an apology” (6). I think about the owls of my life, how they adhere to moments of longing, and night, and the confusion that lies between wakefulness and sleep. “A descanso is love,” Fletcher declares, ending the definition. The book, Tirzah, owls hooting across Northwestern Pennsylvania — these are all invitations to recognize the gaps of knowing that create our emotional memory, the energy of attachment between past and present that allows us to recognize the meaning of the present in the accumulation of the past.

On Connection and Convergence

My teaching load this semester: 1) An advanced seminar focused on the construction of narrative self in memoir (the focal point of these blog posts, of course); 2) An advanced creative nonfiction workshop; 3) A First Year Seminar taking as subject matter the implications and effects of the material aspects of writing — this is a place where early assignments have been the loading of ink into a fountain pen, the writing of letters, and the sewing of books. As is always the case, I find myself startled by the ways the classes come together, even when some of the intersections are expected. Today, in thinking about the totality of Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, on this the final entry dedicated solely to that book, I find myself thinking particularly about these intersections.

Today, in that first year seminar, while students finished sewing and gluing their custom-assembled journals, we chatted also about a few passages in the first two chapters of Sven Birkerts Gutenberg Elegies. I made a big deal out of this one, particularly in the wake of Apple’s release of its new watch: “[Technologies] modify our reflexes and expectations at the same time that they wrap us up in an invisible fabric” (xiii).

We talked, then, about how timezones were first normalized at the service of railroads, and how analog wristwatches (and clocks in general) were a technology that allowed for the separation of the day into units of time instead of units of astronomy, how time makes the content of a class oriented to its length (50 minutes) instead of its material (why not stay until we’re done sewing our books?), how measuring time creates the ability to establish the concept of a work day, how the ubiquity of cellphones leads to the demise of pay phones which indicates or cultivates a turn toward individual resources (I have a cell phone) over communal resources (let’s find a pay phone), and how the Apple Watch will likely condition our expectations for connectivity in new, unforeseen directions, shifting our relationship to our world in some fundamental way. And, right now, all of this makes me think about memoir as a “technology” that “modif(ies) our reflexes and expectations.”

Isn’t this, after all, what Hampl addresses when she foregrounds the intellectual mode of the essay? Isn’t this, also, the way an orientation toward creative nonfiction indicates a writer’s particular attitude toward the world as different than that of the poetic or fictional self? As Hampl writes, “Subject matter is only half the story. It may be possible to trace the lines leading to and from a writer’s life and art in an attempt to reveal why someone writes about this and not about that. But form is a tougher nut: Why a memoir, why not a novel?” (202). Immediately after, she describes a novelist friend who “mistrusted memoir because it would not allow her to speak her soul’s truth” (203), and in the following essay, how seeing her own name peppered through a book written in another language, by a friend from another country, created unease, since Hampl had no idea what was being said about her. Yet there was a name — a particular kind of truth there, something not easily dodged by claims of fictionalization.

Thus the memoirist’s desire to write directly from life is a move with great stakes; you lose friends, as Hampl has. And it is also a move that creates a different sort of linkage between experience and interpretation. As I am planning to accent in my advanced workshop tomorrow, creative nonfiction lives in the space where experience is usefully interpreted (if not fully understood, and even if always provisionally) by the author. In I Could Tell You Stories, Hampl enters the exploration of lived and read experience, as a means to usefully provisionally define just what it is we do when we memoir. I so dearly love, then, the way she sets out, finally, to pinpoint the genre: “For all of that deep pleasure of retrieval, memoir is not about the past. As I understand it, memoir is not a matter of nostalgia. Its double root is in despair and protest” (204). Yes, here she explains precisely why her early reading of Walt Whitman didn’t persist, because her sense of his importance to national identity was about nostalgic blindness instead of despair at how national identity failed to meet the ideal, and protest at how we allow ourselves to live that failure.

“Out of the dream of ruin and disintegration emerges a protest which becomes history when it is written from the choral voice of a nation,” Hampl writes, “and memoir when it is written from a personal voice” (204). Here lies the great convergence of the day, then, how the development of new communication technology intersects with the craft-attention of the meaning-making author then with the inspection of Hampl’s narrative self. What she argues is precisely what technological hyper-connectivity is not: that the idiosyncratic personal lens applies to mutual experience a useful and illuminating interpretation. The Apple Watch, as a symbol of the current apex of personal communication technology, implies a connection within shared consumerism. The lens is identical: a watch to be bought and synched to your cell phone. The lens makes data out of experience, smoothes and nullifies the personal into algorithm. Memoir, instead, seeks to turn data into experience, into singular experience. The risk of memoir is to expose the personal voice and, in turn, be seen as out of synch with the flow of the masses. But that any such flow exists can only be considered as a figment of a collective lack of imagination. Memoir, as Hampl writes it, is an antidote to both cloying personal story-bores and reductive national mythology. Memoir resists “history” by refusing to play the game of universality: it boldly stakes out its subjectivity as vital to foreground how multiple subjectivities will view the same moment in different ways. In that way, a collective history of memoir creates a more truthful collection of voices. There is no buffing of the hard edges, because the edges are precisely where the reality of existence creates the most electricity, darts of meaning arcing in the space between reader and writer.

Just Who Is This?

Patricia Hampl begins so personally, relaying the story of her younger self riding the night bus and witnessing the mystical kiss between a beautiful young man and a woman she describes as “stout and unbeautiful” (19). Or, I should say, she starts even before that, still personally, offering a preface that sets out to explore the self composed of reader and writer, explaining that she will soon embark on “the surprisingly passionate experience of a reader trying to tease out from the works of others the habits of memory as it flares the imagination” (11). Curiously, however, even though I think of this start as tremendously close — “To the Reader,” it is titled, as a direct invitation, an arm around the shoulder pulling you in, to whisper secrets — Hampl writes without any use of first person singular (to loosely cite a fine and important essay by Scott Russell Sanders).

So it should come as no surprise that in a collection that opens with such heavy metaphorical use of the story of self, Hampl soon recedes behind the stories of others. She could tell us stories, of course, but she choose instead to tell the stories of others, sometimes with the framework of herself engaging those stories, more often as a scholar exploring ideas without much interest in her own autobiography. Yet I cannot help but consider how Hampl constructs her own self through the meat of this collection, in essays that focus on Walt Whitman, Mrs. Beranek, Czeslaw Milosz, Edith Stein, Sylvia Plath, St. Augustine, and Anne Frank (or, in fact, on trying to write a review of a “definitive” edition of Anne Frank’s Diary).

I worry that my sense of this created self might be a bit too facile. But here goes anyway: in declaring this project one of reconciliation between reader and writer, Hampl sets out to move through the way her own sense of authorial identity has been shaped by reading. She also returns often to a refrain declaring memoir as the act of tracing a mind at work. Thus, the motion through her reading of Whitman et al scribes the arc of her own sense of self. At the simplest (and most obvious), Hampl presents a self that is built from parts scavenged by the writers to whom she pays attention.

Somewhat more complexly, the sequence through which she moves and, more importantly, how her own self emerges occasionally in considering these other writers, reveals a constantly shifting and ever-deepening sense of nuance. Her thoughts on Whitman are about the loss of innocence, which is then partly reconciled by the inclusion of Milosz’s sense of history, which is made deeply internal through Hampl’s alignment to Stein’s refusal to reveal her conversion story. Then we come to Plath, where the memoir of Hampl strains through the writing again: her story of reviewing Plath as a college student shows the mind of Hampl at work, a prototype of her current self wrestling with what she first found, just as the author self of I Could Tell You Stories wrestles with the how Plath’s legacy limits the personality of the poet to idea alone. The lens moves out, then, to Augustine and his deeply personal quest — and more notably that “one of the things that made Augustine’s readers gasp was not his admission of lust, but his acknowledgement that, after conversion, indeed even as a bishop of the Church, he is still searching and speculating about his God and himself” (170). In this line, Hampl emerges as clearly as if she were penning straight memoir, as the compilation of focal points invites the reader to consider Augustine as metaphor for Hampl, too. And this very line seems to be a kind of mission statement for the book, something tied up in the difficulty of telling stories. Hampl continues to question, speculate, and search for a stable center in the field of memoir.

Now, Hampl is certainly writing about Augustine here. Don’t get me wrong: she’s not simply poaching his life story as a thinly veiled metaphor of self. Instead, I see Hampl writing through the animating cores of her subjects to find her own motivations. In Whitman, we find innocence and hope; in Beranek, we find guilt and complexity; in Milosz the weight of history; in Stein the power of that which is withheld; in Plath the collision of self-identity and -ism; in Augustine the desire to always question; in Frank the need for sane witness. By writing through these individuals, Hampl builds on the page her own desired self as memoirist. She argues (in the circular way an essayist can be said to argue) for these as crucial building blocks of the writer and, crucially, that we can find in reading books the core elements that can allow us to read the world which, after all, is the primary job of the memoirist.

It comes as no small surprise, then, that the fully personal voice of Hampl — the self-focused memoirist — cannot reappear until these influences are duly inspected. Moving forward, then, Hampl turns in the last two essays toward answers to questions posed in the very nature of the book’s title. Further, I remain convinced that “What She Couldn’t Tell” serves as the true centerpiece of this collection, that the fake-named Mrs. Beranek is the key to the selves on display here, and that Hampl’s own conflict with history and innocence is tied up in both the act of writing someone else’s story and the act of not being able to easily read that story. The reader-writer self, looking for a way to honor each end.

Nerdy Essays

A brief and sudden departure, today, from the trajectory of discussions I established in the first two installments. I’m still writing about Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, and I imagine I’ll likely write next week once again about issues of narrative self. Today, however, I’m interested in thinking about a curious feature of form contained in this beautiful collection.

I’m thinking about the overall arc of the book, in part, and the way the narrative voice shifts. Hampl begins with writing that the reader recognizes easily as memoir and.or personal essay. And she ends similarly, with two essays that return to questions about the memoirist’s task. In the middle, her voice gradually recedes for awhile as her writing becomes tremendously external. Certainly, we can think about this from the perspective of self-creation…but I don’t want to do that yet. I promise I will. Next week. Yes, next week.

Instead, I want to consider how the center essays of this collection are written as differing versions of a hybrid scholar-essay. There’s a clear intellectual intention to these pieces (the Nerdy), but there’s also the inclusion of the self (in various degrees) and, more importantly, a sense of the journeying mind working through material (the Essay) instead of declaring and defending a thesis. I understand, of course, that within the world of academic specialization, Hampl’s method of writing about Whitman, Milosz, Stein, Plath, Augustine, and Frank wouldn’t pass muster. She “fails” to hit the marks of scholarship, since her work “wanders” around considerations of these individuals. Yet for me, as an essayist who also has published work clearly defined by the great soporific title of “scholarship,” Hampl’s manner of intellectual engagement presents itself as far more interesting, and far more energized than the faux-objectivity, forced-rationality, sobriety that we (at least those of us in the academy) expect. Hampl’s life intersects with this scholarship, and that’s a very good thing indeed.

I find myself wanting to veer into a discussion of content, here, though I’ll resist. Suffice it to say, there’s a clear way her essaying can be read as the artful construction of…

…Next. Week…

Again, to construction, and a question of genre, offering an apparent digression: it unduly annoys me when colleagues across my campus (and other campuses), in and out of the discipline of English, refer to the assignments they make and the scholarship they write as essays. As I tell my own students, professors are rarely, if ever, asking for or producing essays. They’re talking about articles, those self-conscious, thesis-bound, straight-line attacks that can be understood more or less fully by reading the first paragraph. Hand in an actual essay for most assignments asking for an essay, and you’re looking at comments along the lines of, 

where is the thesis? 

you argument meanders all over the place!

Cut this entire section: it’s just a tangent, unrelated to your main point.


Unsupported opinion!

Who taught you how to write? I recommend you return to Strunk&White’s Elements of Style and review the basics.

Ah, but, but, but E.B. White was an essayist, first and foremost, and a pro at the sort of intuitive, connective leaps that motivate a reader through a text instead of repelling them into outer space, like a rocket missing the angle of re-entry and ricocheting off the impenetrable surface of the Derrida-o-sphere, thereby doomed to a life of lonely space-faring. A few words, then, on why I find Hampl’s intellectual engagement so compelling, and the genre choices of the center of her collection such a fine model for how essayistic scholarship can and ought to have a place in the canon of serious thinking.

Another sidelight: in “The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss,” Sara Levine makes the point that early-career academics write articles. Then, once they have the freedom, they more or less write essays, giving up on the safety blanket of citation. Now, I think I’ll suggest that many of those artifacts aren’t good essays…but they are perhaps essays.

In the case of Hampl, we see a writer who thinks and writes within the more organic style of the essay, meandering (this is a good thing) through her consideration of, for example, the life and martyrdom of Edith Stein. She’s weighing things, here, using the writing to wrestle with complexity, instead of wielding the writing as a mace to bludgeon the reader with a falsified sense of fully-formed idea.

Notably, in this essay Hampl fully suppresses the “I” of her narrative stance. A representative and important line, late in the piece: “The mind goes back instinctively to the brief flashes that spark from Edith Stein’s memoir as if to live again in her life rather than her death, jots of personal life indelibly inscribed in her account of her ‘life in a Hewish family.’ They are the small moments she chose to rescue and reveal as evidence of simple humanity…” (126). This excerpt is not about Hampl (thus no “I”), but is about a consciousness at work. And I think it also demonstrates the honest of the “personal” as a mode of scholarship. Here, Hampl suggests that Stein’s legacy as martyr must be considered, in fact cannot be fully considered at all, without thinking about the life that was lived. Stein can do easily exist as mere idea: a Jew who became Catholic who was murdered by Nazis because she was a Jew who was later beatified by the Catholic Church.

Similarly, in the essay that follows, Hampl writes extensively about Sylvia Plath (the “I” has returned in force in this one!), partly to consider the importance of viewing Plath as an individual who lived and breathed and not just as an idea or representation of American Feminism. To ignore the life is, here, to ignore the reality and complexity and vitality of the idea, as it is in discussing Stein.

“Ultimately, a life seeking greatness is about the loss of the self in the service of a more complete reality,” Hampl writes (105). Yet that complete reality cannot ignore that a consciousness is at work. Even as much as Stein refused to tell her conversion story — as Hampl relates several times in the essay — she was still animated by that story, as private as it might have been.

Ultimately, this is the power I see in the activation of lived experience in scholarship, and why as much as I admire the intellect of Hampl’s Stein essay, I vastly prefer her writing about Plath, where she offers close reading of the poet alongside Plath’s biography and Hampl’s own autobiography (more on why she chose to be so distant in discussing Stein next week). By writing about how our live’s intersect with our reading, we can better articulate how the meaning of texts cannot resonate in a vacuum. Indeed, texts are meaningless without readers. If I veer a bit too close to reasserting an unfiltered Reader Response theory here, I apologize. But, still, we cannot ever refuse to acknowledge the way our own experiences govern our thought. There is no such thing as pure scholarship: everything is written from a subjective position, from an “I” who is shaping the material. The act of the essay, then, becomes a more genuine act of intellectual engagement.

Historical Perspective and the Position of Memoir

In the early going of Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir, Birkerts describes the act this way: “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning — with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story” (3-4). Today, my own consideration of the genre leads me to consider the way Patricia Hampl positions the narrative identity that is intuiting the meaning at hand, just whose contingency is telling which story. After opening with two essays that mull the nature and (un)reliability of memoir, Hampl moves to a curious trio: “The Mayflower Moment: Reading Whitman during the Vietnam War,” “What She Couldn’t Tell,” and “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory.” From the perspective of, well, perspective, these three essays address the narrative position of the American Self, the Memoiring Self Who Doesn’t Quite Understand the Whole Story, and the Historical Self. In the motion between these three essays, Hampl addresses a key question of the genre, that of how you position and fashion a narrator (the “I,” generally).

The bracketing essays of this trio describe two poles of that self. From Whitman, Hampl argues that the American memoirist writes within a national context that must reckon with a troubled national history (as must all who write within the context of any nation’s history) but also within an uttered sense of American unity, a conflict that can create some mental unease. “But reading Whitman I belonged: to what I felt was the true nation, to those who lived in the magic of the possible, in mourning for America, the pure idea” (49). Yet Hampl also develops the essay as a tracing of her path away, at least for awhile, from Whitman, in part because of the tension between ideal America and lived experience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Hampl writes of Czeslaw Milosz, who she argues “has located the best grace of memoir: a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world” (86). Instead of a Whitmanesque author describing the self, Milosz is a self inhabiting the residues of Eastern European atrocity, Nazism and Communism. For Milosz, then, or perhaps for the version of Hampl writing in this essay, “This presence which lies at the heart of the experience of memory is both personal and impersonal. This double nature of his memory, which Milosz says caused his post-War experience in the West to be ‘robbed’ of some of its ‘reality,’ is, from an American middle-class perspective, an enriching and intensifying of reality” (90).

The nature of the narrative self, then, can be considered from these two perspectives. One is the central I, the figure whose authority as individual  (something Hampl, I believe, would argue is rather particularly American), allows that I to serve as the vision for both a nation and the reader. This is an I who can see all, is an active participant in the making of meaning about the self in question. The other side, the Milosz, is the witness who walks through the wreckage of history and weighs the personal experience against the heft of the past. This is Milosz placing personal childhood memories in the context of killing fields (see 90-91). This is Milosz writing a self that is not so much a stand-in for Poland but a self who cannot be reckoned alongside the known history of the homeland.

The contrast here is, perhaps, one born of age. As any American tourist will report, Europe is so much older than the U.S. As facile as such an epiphany may be, an American abroad can rarely help but marvel at the number of buildings that are older than our country. This is a useless emotion, but one I’ve certainly felt when abroad — some combination of humility, wonder, and pride. We’re so new. So naive. So fresh. So full of hope. That’s kind of Hampl’s suggestion as well, in the choice of the I as conduit: Whitman’s I is one that isn’t yet jaded enough to deny the possibility of national ideology. The I of Milosz, instead, has seen enough to be less impressed with the hopefulness of a youthful national identity. And, as Hampl illustrates so well, the reading of Whitman during the Vietnam War is a dissonant moment of reading about the ideal while the ideal commits the atrocities of war. Reading Whitman now, of course, carries similar cognitive risk.

How then, might a memoirist move forward from these two extremes of the narrative position? As Hampl puts it, “We embody, if unwittingly and partially, our history, even our prehistory. The past courses through our veins. The self is the instrument which allows us not only to live this truth but to contemplate it, and thereby to be comforted by meaning — which is simply the awareness of relationship” (97). This persistence of the past animates the most interesting of these three essays, the centerpiece that is nominally about Hampl’s relationship with an elderly Czech woman in St. Paul, “What She Couldn’t Tell Me.”

First, consider the relationship of that essay’s title to the title of the book, I Could Tell You Stories. Here, immediately, is the opening and closing down of narrative fullness. Together, the book promises the possibility of story (an issue covered deeply in the first essay of the collection) and, then, the refusal or inability to tell it. Spoiler: the problem of Mrs. Beranek is that she is a Czechoslovakian refugee of the wrong sort. She and her husband left the country not to flee Communist oppression but because, immediately after WWII, the nation wasn’t a friendly place for a couple who had fared well as collaborators with the occupying Nazis. Beranek wants to tell that story, starts to at one point, but cannot: it’s a story of the wrong sort of struggle, since it is the bad guy trying to argue for his humanity. Yet, at the same time, it is a quintessentially human story of loss, and a story we typically refuse to hear. We prefer the St. Paul newspaper version of it, that the family had had enough of Communism, than the troubling reality of collaborator suffering. A) We’d just as soon have them suffer as not; B) We’d just as soon not hear stories from collaborators; C) We’d just as soon not consider the historical residue of living collaborators.

Thus the structure of Hampl’s essay moves the reader through a fascinating progression. Her own choice of narrative presence is an intriguing combination of Whitman’s American ideal and Milosz’s historical witness. Hampl reveals unease throughout the essay, moments that indicate that the historical self knew something was up with Beranek. And by the end, she returns to Prague to find a relative of Beranek who reveals some part of the truth, that the couple had left the country at precisely the moment when only national traitors would have. Hampl writes of Beranek to write of a narrative self that gradually must contend with the rupture of national idealism.

Hampl has befriended an enemy here, has shown great kindness to a woman who history marks as traitor. For this, she inherits a book of photographs that forever fix the images of Mr. Beranek, the soldier-collaborator, the wartime wealth of a couple who profited from the loss of their country. Whatever is left of Hampl’s American idealism must succumb to this reality: Mrs. Beranek could be used as a story of American dreams only by ignoring the nature of what brought her to the country. Notably, the essay is written mostly as a narrative of Mrs. Beranek, without a heavy consciousness by Hampl; she breaks for reflection seldom, until the end of the essay. Here, I see the imprint of Milosz, of what Hampl herself identifies as the position of memoirist and lyric poet: “consciousness in the light of history” (100). This is an essay that traces the coming of age of a voice. It is a narrative self that recognizes the limitation of stories that could be told but cannot, that recognizes the importance of using history to consider experience. In fact, Hampl herself does not know that Mrs. Beranek was a collaborator; she has only intuited this, and been told by someone else that such was the case. Factually, there’s little “evidence.” Yet the reality is clear: this is the only reasonable explanation.

Here it is at the very beginning of that essay, the commentary on the nature of figuring the memoirist’s stance: “Everything about Mrs. Beranek…should have told me that she harbored a secret. But I was incapable of recognizing a secret of her kind” (61). At this moment in the collection, Hampl’s narrative position is not yet one capable of hearing the story that could not be told. She was, perhaps, still too much steeped in Whitman and not yet tempered by Milosz. At the same time, Hampl chooses to end the essay not with the final revelation of the full truth of Beranek’s guilt but, instead, with the revelation that this is a fake name, at the request of the woman, who is long dead and, therefore, who would never read these words. That Hampl chose, still, to honor that request indicates the persistence of Whitman’s hope, that she has written with the gravity of history even as she participates in the peculiar hope of a young nation. The last word, in fact, is “innocence,” tied to Mrs. Beranek, who we know not to be innocent in any pure sense. In this move, the self of Hampl’s narrator has  populated a sophisticated place of hope and history, has set aside the naiveté of Whitman, which in fact Hampl recognize as a misreading of Whitman and not a problem with the poet. Hampl writes a consciousness that reckons with the relationship of the past and the self, and in so doing makes a contemporary revision of Whitman: an American self that writes what she sees, all the while understanding that there is much she cannot see.