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.

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