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.