Month: October 2014

Legend, Memoir, and the Mid-70s

Three publications, in this sequence: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior in 1975, and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (part of his collection Desert Notes) in 1976.

Three opening lines:

  • I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. (Dillard)
  • “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “What I am about to tell you.” (Kingston)
  • I am going to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. (Lopez)

If I squint just a little, I can connect these three lines through their comment act of compressing the stories of others into the story of the self and, particularly, in the way memoir can be written within the stream of cultural myth, not so much as citation but as an experience that lies in the flowing stream.

Another factoid: last weekend, as part of a research trip for my own writing project, I met a (very) conservative Catholic who explained his continual belief in St. Christopher — a saint excised, among others, from the official canon of saints due to a lack of factual evidence defining his existence — as driven by ontology. To this man, the truth of tradition is as valid as the truth of verifiability, with tradition more or less corresponding with the concept of faith itself. Thus, St. Christopher is a saint because tradition says he’s a saint, whether or not the current hierarchy of the church recognizes him as such.

The three writers I cite, then, are engaging the truth of tradition. Dillard, (in)famously, did not own that cat, nor experience that moment but, in fact, borrowed the story from someone else. Kingston begins her memoir with the story of No Name Woman, an aunt she never knew, but writes within multiple versions of that aunt’s point of view and, later, within the point of view of Fa Mu Lan, a legendary warrior woman of ancient China. Lopez writes of the natural history of ravens and crows, desert mythologies of those creatures mixing with naturalist observations to create a fabulous totality. Common among these openings, then, is the implicit declaration that story carries truth in a way different but equally powerful as verifiable acts. More importantly, story offers an access to truth and reality that cannot or should not be considered as subordinate to that which can be measured “rationally.”

Thinking particularly in the context of Kingston, Woman Warrior opens with two chapters that invite the reader to consider the present persistence of story in experienced reality. Kingston herself does not experience that which her aunt suffered (in the first chapter) nor what Fa Mu Lan experienced. But those stories also cannot be  placed into the limiting situation of metaphor. Stories are not to be told as a means of relation. Instead, stories are presented as extant within her own experience. Kingston memoir begins with the apparent subordination of the self — very little is written about her — and the foregrounding of exterior, “unverifiable” second-hand experience, but that subordination is actually the activation of stories power. Her life has been lived within and around those stories; her life is itself a story that intersects and overlaps the universalities of the tales being told. Specifically, then, Woman Warrior begins with two stories that demonstrate the limited prospects of being a woman warrior. The choices are to a) commit suicide after suffering the violence of male domination or b) conceal one’s identity as woman in order to do things considered masculine. Neither is a suitable choice, and in fact Kingston seeks to write space away from those restrictions. But, in fact, both her memoir and her life exist within the ongoing context of the framing stories. They are not examples or counterpoint; they are life itself.

I offer, also, the observation of the consecutive publication of the three texts I cite here: 74, 75, 76. This may be mere coincidence, but I’d like to make the unsubstantiated claim to consider the mid-70s as an important root in the comprehension of memoir as a literary way of being instead of as facts written to paper. Indeed, the usage of story in these three texts indicates an important shift away from narrow conceptions of what counts as truth. Crucially, I don’t mean this to suggest that truth doesn’t matter, nor that we can make simple separations between emotional and literal truth. Instead, I’m think close to the sense of truth of tradition, and closer still to an ill-informed citation of the intellectual love child of Derrida and Heisenberg. If, as writers, we believe words matter, and stories matter, we also intend to conceive of the world as a place where story is as real as stone.

Apparatus and Invention

In part, I’m writing today in the wake of the thoughtful comment by Dedwards, posted in response to my first entry on Lauren Slater’s Lying. It’s worth a read (the book, obviously, but right now I mean the response), and I encourage all interested parties to do so.

I’ll wait a second…

Okay, thanks for doing that.

The most significant question of Dedwards’s response relates to the notion of formal innovation, both whether Slater needed to constantly undermine the veracity of her narrative and whether or not she simultaneously invented and took-to-its-end a sub genre of memoir. The simple answer to each of those is yes…sort of. And while I don’t mean, really, to write here only in response to the ideas of the post, I am going to use it as a launching pad.

Initially, the chief concern lies in the arena of the meta. As someone wise once suggested, all creative nonfiction can be read at some level as an act of meta-writing (and, really, I suppose all writing can be considered at this level, since the act of literary creation is the act of creating the very structures and limits of chosen form), and certainly Slater is keenly aware that her memoir is partly a direct response to the late-1990s state of the memoir industry. But thinking of it only in these terms creates a tremendous limitation: if Lying is just an act of meta-memoir, then it hardly deserves further examination beyond the aha! moment of meta-revelation.

On the level of the direct, then, as I touched upon in my previous post, the craft choice of instability is partly the aboutness of Lying. Slater can’t know, so the reader can’t know. Extending that further, the fullness of the metaphorical aspect of the memoir, something Slater suggests might be extensive, adds further instability and tension. As the memoir progresses, the reader learns that, perhaps, Slater has Munchausen’s Syndrome, which is to say that her specific medical condition could be the condition of making things up (“I exaggerate” indeed!). Within the text, she goes to great pains to capitalize on the tension between what can and cannot be known — epilepsy or Munchausen or something else — and also goes to great lengths to create various veneers of truth. In Chapter 4 she “cites” medical “texts,” which cannot be fully trusted (and which can, in fact, be fact-checked). The last of these, of course, is clearly fabricated, since the subject of the study is “Jean Levy,” the name Slater uses as an alias two chapters hence, and particularly because the description of this case study is more less the jacket copy of Lying. Most notably, the except begins this way:

We have noted that epilepsy is one of the illnesses frequently chosen by Munchausen’s patients, and that, despite the stubbornness with which they cling to their illness facades, they also desire to be revealed. (90)

That’s the mission statement of the memoir: Slater seeks to both create a fully believable case for her “epilepsy” and wants the reader to know it’s not “true.” Quotes are important here, to indicate the full power of the metaphor of epilepsy and the full instability of “true.”

A quick clarification: it would be easy to retreat to the shifty stance of arguing for the power of emotional truth versus factual truth, something Slater engages in the book and, in the popular crises of creative nonfiction, some defenders of deceit in the genre have suggested is the only ethical requirement of the memoirist. I disagree, since the power of creative nonfiction relies on the implicit contract of reality — the effect of the stories we tell relates directly to the veracity of event portrayed. Or, in the case of Slater, the effect of her stories relates directly to the unstable veracity of events. Simply, the signals of questionability help guarantee ethical practice. More complexly, the way that Slater creates unknowable factuality intersects with our desire to know what happened and creates the narrative impulse of the memoir. We can’t know, which is a large portion of what the book is about, at both the narrative and meta-memoir level.

So, back to the meta, and to the end of the book: “And still. You want to know. What are the real facts about the condition I call epilepsy in the story” (220). Slater goes on to describe her “actual” medical condition, whose diagnosis has shifted over time as medical comprehension has shifted. Depending on who and when you ask, she has suffered (or not) from a wide variety of disorders, all of which are precisely the same condition of being. That all boils down to these final words in the Afterword:

Therefore, despite the huge proliferation of authoritative illness memoirs in recent years, memoirs that talk about people’s personal experience with Tourette’s and postpartum depression and manic depression, memoirs that are often rooted in the latest scientific “evidence,” something is amiss. For me, the authority is illusory, the etiologies constructed. When all is said and done, there is only one kind of illness memoir I can write, and that’s a slippery, playful, impish, exasperating text, shaped, if it could be, like a question mark. (221)

This is the high energy moment of collision between the subatomic particles of memoir and meta-memoir. In the flash of that wreck, Slater demonstrates how Lying is both and neither. Yes, it is a story of her struggle with illness, metaphorized to epilepsy. Yes, it is an intervention into the knowability of truth and the position of the memoirist. No, it is not about epilepsy. No, it is not about memoir.

Lying is a text that, in its totality, narrates the meta-nature of our very concept of illness. Because of the metaphors of science and medicine, we feel always the need to separate order from disorder, to place clear name to “conditions” that are defined explicitly as deviations from “normality.” Yet Slater struggles throughout the memoir to argue for the condition of her life, not as disorder but as state of being. The very shiftiness of diagnoses is a revelation of the perils of our demands for explicit order: things can’t be known or, rather, are only known by the labels we happen to apply.

(Un)Reliability in Memoir

A) In full, chapter one of Lauren Slater’s memoir Lying: “I exaggerate.”

B) And this from Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir: “…memoir is undertaken not just as another kind of artistic expression, which is to say a work created for an intended audience, but also as an act of self-completion” (88).

C) What does a writer do if the act of self-completion forces her to consider the gaps in a life that cannot be filled? See “A.”


As memoir, Lying addresses both a unique and resolutely universal conundrum, the instability of memory, which complicates the writing of a piece of art that in its very definition depends on memory. If memoir seeks to think back on a portion of life, reinhabit memory, then apply the lens of time to make sense of those memories, the enterprise would seem to be utterly corrupted when the view through the lens magnifies a gaping hole or, in fact, if the application of the lens functions like a magnifying class aimed at an ant in the hot sun, the multiplication of energy causing the obliteration of the subject of study. Such a memoir would be a close-up image of a smoking hole. And in many respects, Lauren Slater writers of the examination of such absence. Hers is a story of reconciling childhood epilepsy (or appears to be…instability makes me question everything in this book), which she describes as having left gaps in memory. Experience has been erased, and in this memoir she seeks to write and examine that experience.

So, directly, Slater’s admissions of exaggeration are revelations of experience. I hope that doesn’t strike anyone as too post-modern, this intentional absence functioning as commentary on the absences of life. Indeed, this is the only tactic that Slater has in reconstructing her life. She cannot complete the self in the same fashion as other memoirists, because she cannot access or even pretend to access memories. About fifty pages in, she writes the magic words THE END, then flips everything around on the next page, just so we’re clear on what’s happening:

Not quite.

This is a work of nonfiction. Everything in it is supposed to be true. In some instances names of people and places have been changed to protect their privacy, but the essential story should at least aim for accuracy, so the establishment says. Therefore, I confess. To the establishment. I didn’t really fall into the grave. I was just using a metaphor to try to explain my mental state. The real truth is I went to the funeral, the hearse had engine trouble, the coffin was late, I looked into the grave, and I thought about falling in. (60).

Page 59 offers the narrative clarity we desire in reading, a story that comes to a satisfying and properly evocative ending, Slater lying at the bottom of a grave looking up at the faces peering over the rim. Page 60 presents the complication, that it didn’t happen even as it did, because things that happen in the mind are every bit as real to the body as things that happen physically. Perhaps obviously, in a memoir focused on the deep issues of the brain, writing through this aspect (and against the mind-body split) is crucial.

What memoir isn’t about this, actually? In Firebird, Mark Doty looks through lenses of time to repopulate the memories of his childhood, and he identifies his project as the construction of a perspective box, which is to say, a box built of distortions and viewed through different resolutions. In Descanso for My Father, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher assembles a version of his father through the collection of pieces, which is to say he reconstructs a false image through the act of tertiary memory. In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl addresses the difficulty of could in the telling, and the slipperiness of memories of learning to play the piano, and how writing through the false memory leads to something…else.

While it’s too easy to repeat this aphorism, I repeat it anyway: all memoir is meta-memoir. How can it not be, if the project of the writing relies in the ethical engagement of memories that can never be fully trusted? I say too easy, though, because Lying cannot be reduced to mere meta-artifact; it is not just or even a book about writing memoir. Sure, we can read it that way, since the trouble of memory that Slater considers is the trouble of the genre, but Lying is also a tremendous act of ethical reconstruction. It is a memoir (how I want a strand of significant organ music to play as you read those words), and it is concerned primarily with the very construction of self that Birkerts suggests as central to this particular style of art.

I’ll back up here for a moment, to my aside about never trusting anything in Lying, that I’m never quite sure if she’s really writing about epilepsy or if she’s using it as a metaphor for something else. While this, too, sounds overly-meta, I think that’s part of the point. Even though Slater keeps reminding the reader of when she exaggerates, or when she is flat out lying (think, again, about page 60), that act works to weaken the reader’s resolve to see the action on the pages as fully literal. Yet, also, it encourages the reader to trust the moments that are presented as real, because Slater has established herself as reliably unreliable. She’ll tell you if she’s lying…right…won’t she?

Maybe. Maybe not. How could she if she herself doesn’t even know? Ultimately, that’s the point of the accent on unreliability, that we can never knows as readers because she can never know as writer. So we are forced to trust experience in the same way she trusts experience, which is to say that we can’t but also do. Which is to say that the memoir functions simultaneously as meta and literal text. Which is to say that memoir itself, even life itself, is about dealing with the unreliability of our own narrative centers. We do that automatically every day, yet also experience the frustration of moments when, say, a loved one remembers a cherished moment different than we do. Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Both…neither…we can never quite know.

Literary Optometry

In class yesterday, I found myself unexpectedly sketching an eyeball on the board, then describing the way light enters the cornea, passes through the pupil, and strikes the retina, and not always the right way. We discussed the distortions of myopia — a shared condition of many in the room — and how an optometrist applies different lenses in an exam in order to find the proper resolution.

Lens. Resolution. Image.

Such things matter deeply both at the optometrist’s office and in the reading of memoir. As Doty so clearly established in the prelude of Firebird, the work functions as a perspective box through which the reader (and writer) views the material of his life. Remarkable in this memoir, specifically, is how Doty navigates through a series of lenses or, perhaps, focal points. This was the other drawing I offered:

Doodles, page 2

In case the startling virtuosity of my art isn’t clear, through this image I intended to show a series of lenses from which an object can be viewed. Time progresses as we move to the right. The idea, I explained, is that Doty uses a constantly shifting depth of reflective focus as a way to create layers of understanding for the reader. By the end of the memoir, the reader is standing alongside Doty, completely outside the experience of the narrative, viewing from the most distant and, perhaps, corrective lens. Through the application of time, the lens of memoir allows him the space to interpret experience differently, perhaps as fully as possible at the moment of the writing.

The position of Doty as writer in Firebird figures prominently here. As is the case in all memoirs, he is writing from a static position: the writer at his or her desk, repopulating memory and thinking about it. Or, as Joyce Dyer explains, “(Memoirists) can never be attached to the memory the way they were when the experience was first lived” (93). Instead, the act of memoir is the act of the optometrist, dropping lenses in front of the eye to create finer and finer resolution of often grainy memory. In Firebird, Doty makes this happen in intriguing ways. On one hand, it is always clear that he is writing from the distant future perch, even as he describes his young self. He constantly interrupts the memoir to express failures of memory, or to offer present tense lines like, I would later realize. Throughout, the reader understands that Doty is constructing this memoir. Yet, at the same time, the position of his reflection keeps shifting.

As the memoir progresses, Doty drops another lens into the line, and the quality of reflection changes. By the end of Firebird, his writing has moved into declarative ruminations, sentences, paragraphs, and even full sections that declare the way the world is. For example:

To tell a story is to take power over it. Now they — we — are part of a tale, a made thing — a perspective box! What begins as a trick of craft makes it possible to stand apart, to — forgive? Not exactly. The stubborn past is not to be dissolved by any act of will, and perhaps we ought at last to be glad for that. What happened defines us, always; erase the darkness in you at your own peril, since it’s inextricable at last from who you are. (193-194)

Here, he writes with the force of law, with deep perspective, explaining how the world is, and not just his world. Of course, this is a mode of reflective writing that many memoirists deploy. Indeed, if they didn’t, memoir would be a far less universal and exciting genre. But the nature of Doty’s application of this voice, and how very little of this kind of reflection appears early in Firebird, demonstrates the way he has built his own perspective box. In a sense — and this might sound reductive — he has allowed us to experience the growing sense of recognition that he himself experienced. But I find the shifts of Doty’s reflective voice even more profound that that. I sense his mistrust of another common trick of perspective, that a memoirist write of young experience as if it cannot be filtered, on the page creating a sort of simulacrum of the child he or she once was. Instead, Doty continually gestures toward himself at the desk, but still only allows certain lenses to be applied.

So, early on, in the first chapter he writes: “Memory…orchestrates the scene like this…” (11). Then, on the next page: “To recollect: that verb’s exact, since here in the haze are elements of a collection, an assemblage of things so long unseen they might as well be the stuff of someone else’s life” (12). These lines can only be written by a narrator in the distant future of the action. The Doty of this first chapter is six years old, but he makes clear that the writer is much older. Yet he also offers only a limited sense of reflection — he seeks to view the world through a lens that protects the miscomprehension of the six year old. The chapter makes heavy use of associative image — shattered glass, from a childhood story — that presages themes to come. But Doty does not turn the reflection to the sort of depth he engages late in the memoir. He couldn’t have done that as a child, so he doesn’t do it on the page, even though a reader understands that the writer has the ability to do so.

This is a remarkable use of the multiple positions of reflection. At once, Doty foregrounds that he is an adult writer in control of the words, aware of the totality of the book the reader holds, even as he allows the steady application of time to deepen the comprehension of the accumulated experience. Without this dual approach, Doty would have either had to pretend he couldn’t understand the action of his early years (a false lack-of-consciousness) or continually indicate to the reader exactly what given moments mean (an overly-sure reflective voice). The middle space he finds satisfies both the reality of the artistic creator shaping the words on the page and the narrative tension of a slowly accruing concept of self.

Referenced: Dyer, Joyce. “Let Me Think About That: The Memoirist as Ruminant.” The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2013: 90-99.