Author: Matthew Ferrence

And Then I Rented a Truck

As an aside to the typical (which is to say: rarely to never appearing) content of this (pretty much defunct) blog (which is also to say: a pretty much defunct form of writing), this summer I’ll share a few notes on the reno work I’m doing at our Canadian farmhouse, in gorgeous Prince Edward Island.

Quick context: the farmhouse had problems when we bought, indeed could only be bought because it had problems…namely a caving-in foundation and some rotted posts in the basement. A good deal, then! Easy fix, the contractor who looked at it said!

It was not easy. Just as securing a contractor proved difficult. The first — the one who said it would be easy — disappeared after a walkthrough, foisting the job toward someone else when it became clear I wasn’t buying his “offer” to take the Island stone of the foundation off my hands, save me money since I wouldn’t have to haul it, he’d just take it for free (and then sell it for thousands…). Several twists and turns appeared in finding a new, reliable contractor, one twist rather tragic (which I won’t get into here), a few other amounting to further disappearance acts, and the end result being two contractors, one to replace only one wall of the foundation (the one caving) plus concrete the clay basement floor, and the other to do the structural work…

…which proved to be substantial. Almost every joist. Almost every post in the basement. The sill plates. A carrying beam or two. A necessary whole house rewire. Surprising needs for a plumbing upgrade. A budget tripled, and the “good deal” now not so much.

I arrived Monday to finally see the fruits of this winter labor. And, in bullet form:

  • The electrical work isn’t finished, with the most troubling non-connection that of the well pump to the new 200-amp box. So no water. And it is a holiday (Victoria Day)…
  • And, the phone + internet is dead, coupled with my American cell not working in Canada, and the nearest public WiFi a half hour away (see: holiday).
  • Day 2, an electrician arrives on short notice (thanks!) and installs the last breaker. This isn’t the electrician who did the job (rather, who didn’t), and he isn’t super thrilled with what he sees in the new box. Lots of long loops for the new connections, making it hard to get new wires through, and also leaving open the (unlikely) possibility of one of the long strands of bare ground copper getting pushed into hot slots in the box, zap.
  • Day 2, the phone company does not arrive…then I find out they did…just when I wasn’t there and before I knew they would be trying to come…because I was 30 minutes away checking my messages to find out they would be by, oh, between 8am and 5pm.
  • Day 2, the hot water tank doesn’t seem to be heating, at all.
  • Day 3, the hot water tank leads to tepid water, after a good 18 hours of cooking, so I start a chilly shower, get soaped up, and then the water stops. Kaput. Dead. I towel off, leaving a protective layer of soap film, and want to call a plumber, but have no phone service.
  • Day 3, the weather drops 25 degrees, into the 30s, and the wall furnace to the currently unheated home is still 24 hours away from install.
  • Day 3, the new propane tank is delivered. That’s good.
  • Day 3, I spend an hour on the phone with the satellite company, because the foundation work meant someone sawed down the tower with the satellite on it, tacked it up facing a different angle, so unless the neighboring potato field is broadcasting, nothing’s coming to the dish; it takes an hour to convince the agent that, no, doing the diagnostic again isn’t going to work.
  • Day 3, the phone is reinstalled, the tech showing me that the foundation work meant, wham, the box was pulled off the wall, the wire severed (would have been nice if they’d at least told me they did that), and fresh shingles places where the box used to be. The tech spools a temporary line through the woods to the relay console, and later this summer a crew will trench and bury it. Back to communications.
  • Day 3, new plumber called.
  • Day 3, plumber diagnoses a short in one of the well wires, plans to return on Day 4 to fix it. You’re living here, he asks. I assure him the woods are fine, and I have enough bottled water to force the commode to flush when necessary.
  • Day 3, the plumber also suspects that the heating element is dead in the hot water tank. He’ll fix that, also.
  • Day 3, when the plumber leaves, the circuit holding the internet has tripped…foreshadowing.
  • Day 3, I drive to the City to get wood for my interior projects…new floors in the kitchen, in the eating area, in the bathroom…future projects include building cabinets, and finishing a wall that now has exposed understructure, rebuilding the gutting bathroom.
  • Day 3, the big box store won’t sell me wood — this is actually charming and helpful — because the guy working in the lumber area thinks my project would be better and more economical if I sourced the wood from a local sawmill.
  • Day 3, I buy a drier for the house, assure the sales person that it will fit in the back of my Subaru Impreza.
  • Day 3, the drier does not fit. We start to remove the box. I give myself a bad paper cut and start bleeding all over the box. She gets me a bandaid, and I apologize for being the worst customer ever. The drier still does not fit.
  • Day 3, I find out the big box store has a van to rent, which I rent. I won’t be able to make it back until after closing. No problem, they say. They give me a number to call when I get there, for the manager on duty, who can let me in to return the key, or I can return in the morning…but in the morning I have a plumber, and a furnace install, and a cable service appointment. So I drive 45 minutes home, drop the drier on the porch, drive back. Everyone is impressed with my speed.
  • Day 3, I return home to discover that the drier won’t fit in the door of the house.
  • Day 3, I take the pneumatic off the screen door. The drier still doesn’t fit.
  • Day 3, I take the pneumatic holder off the door jamb. The drier fits.
  • Day 3, the upstairs lights don’t work, the breaker having been tripped at some point. Maybe it happened when the plumber was looking at the tank, or maybe there are gremlins in the new wiring. Perhaps Day 4 will yield answers.

Draft Comments to the Russian Ambassador Enrolled in My Creative Writing Workshop

Dear Sergey,

Let me first say that it has been a joy to have you in this class, even if you’re not a student and, in fact, enrolled at a rival university. The valise of rare jewels of questionable provenance was completely unnecessary: Happy to have you aboard! (Do I need to disclose that on my taxes? I should check with HR, but you probably know better than they). Also, no, I’m not aware of the precise effects of radiation poisoning, but on an unrelated matter I have already alerted the registrar of the A you will be earning in this class at the end of term.

So, about your story. I love it. Though I’m not sure that the title “Oh Captain My Captain It is Russia Who Will Soon Contain Your Multitudes” is the best choice. Maybe something subtler? Try: “[Redacted Testimony from a Federal Grand Jury].” Brackets are fun, and my title doesn’t give away what happens in the story, which seems very much to be what you’re after.

On the plot: normally, I’m not a fan of conservative religious soft porn, particularly when overlayed with international intrigue and propagandistic tendencies. But you make it work. Seriously. It’s kind of Fifty Shades of Gray meets a long lost sophomore-year amateurish John LeCarre novel as written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but not a bad Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, instead an alt-Soviet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wasn’t a traitor and instead wrote for the glory of Mother Russia. Seriously, your story is that good.

Though you might want to rethink the character’s names: Veep sounds like a muppet, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is oddly specific, plus that character is too shifty to allow for a reasonable suspension of disbelief. Side question: why does Donny keep looking at his phone? It’s all he seems to do in the story, which might be your attempt to suggest an infantile mind, or a narcissistic disorder of some sort, or maybe simple lunacy, but if he’s supposed to be the driver of the car in this buddy road trip story, well, that distraction seems dangerous to say the least. I mean, will they even be able to get to St. Petersburg? Won’t they crash along the way? Why would they even give Donny the keys? These are fundamental questions of believability, so please consider.

My favorite character by far, and one who you’ve mastered with uncommon grace and subtly, is Sir Gary Killer of Yaks. I admit to thinking the name seemed odd at first, but the character is so well drawn that I have nary a suggestion to make. I was sucked in by his dashing good looks and unrivaled intelligence. Though, could you vary your diction some? Using “Putin-esque” as a recurring adjective does create a lovely anaphora but I found myself hoping for more variety. Try “Vladmir-esque” or even “shirtless machismo.” Yes, they’re rather obvious synonyms, but I think you’ll like the effect. I could be wrong. You’re the boss.

Finally, I want to respond to your handwritten note that, as instructed, I set on fire before, again, as instructed, eating the ashes. You’ve requested a transfer from my fiction course into creative nonfiction (which you curiously referred to as alt-nonfiction – I like that change, but FYI it’s not the convention of the genre). I fear that this story would strain the limits of credulity too far if considered “true,” even if, as you suggest, it is “based fully on events that are real, accurate, and intended to undermine the global position of the evil decadent West.” You’re best where you are, in this fictional universe. I mean, were you writing nonfiction, well, I’d actually be worried about the fate of the nation. Ha ha! Seriously, kidding. If you want to switch, that’s fine by me. Your call.

In closing, let me reiterate that we have never met before, or even now. In fact, let me be very clear that I have neither met you nor ever talked to you, let alone invited you to actually lead the workshop instead of serving as a student, and if I have met and talked to you and written a detailed workshop response letter, it hardly sticks in my mind, despite the mellifluous resonance of your masterful prose.

Keep Writing,

Your Dutiful Servant and Professor

Learning to Read our Trumpian Dystopia

This is what I’ll be teaching today and tomorrow, in my creative writing workshops:

Dear Students,

I am sorry I didn’t read your drafts. This seemed to matter more.

First: I love you, in a totally non-actionable, platonic, intellectual, but-still-don’t-tell-HR-I-said-this, literary way.

Second first: I love literature, and I love writing, and I want to talk today about the way that Donald Trump is a failure of narrative literacy, and how what we’ve just experienced is a remarkable – if harrowing – reminder of how our lives are defined almost entirely through story. More than that, the unexpected, shocking, terrifying, troubling, unimaginable happened last night because we, America, don’t know how to read and don’t know how to imagine.

This is why we matter, class. This is why teaching writing matters, and learning writing matters, and books matter, and reading matters, and serious reading and writing matters. It’s all we have. And I believe that’s actually quite a bit, is a solemn, serious, powerful tool.

Yet we’ve given up on it, or allowed others to give up on it. We can’t do that anymore. Because we failed to imagine the possibility of President Trump. We failed to imagine the potential narrative arcs of those in America who struggle. We imagined Trump into the White House because we don’t know how to read.

Look, there are words we need to deploy right here, theoretical terms that help to explain, analyze, and begin to sort where we are. Neoliberalism. Panopticism. State Ideological Apparatus. Propaganda. Jingoism. On and on. I encourage you to talk to theorists, and philosophy professors, and religious studies professors, and political science professors, and psychologists who have been studying how the human brain is literally transported through the act of reading, that literature teaches empathy, that reading is not an idle pass-time used to wile away the hours. Indeed, all of these things are vital. Notice, though, how the study of so much of what I’ve just listed happens in places and by people who are frequently denounced as irrelevant to the biggest issues of national concern, like economy, and economy, and economy. We’re in a place right now, a liberal arts college, populated by individuals who over the years have been decried as pointy-headed intellectuals, and ivory tower elites, blah blah fucking blah.

This characterization is no accident. This sidelining is no accident. Trump is no accident. The forces of, in particular, the neoliberal attack on thinking, education, and creativity in favor of vocational, “measurable,” value-propositional, corporate-speaking, business-minded, bottom line focused, spreadsheet-obsessed absences of imagination have led us here. We have decided to measure value in a narrow way, and that measurement does not include narrative.

Let me step back for a second to fundamental issues of story. You have a character. And that character has desires. And the character acts on those desires, along an escalating line of complications, until the desire is satisfied and the character is transformed in some way.

Donald Trump is a character. America is a character. Elections are built on narratives, and we have been failing spectacularly as readers, so the transformation isn’t so great.

I’m going to be direct and blunt here, because I think the particulars of this election signal something dangerous. Trump is our nightmare scenario. But we should have been able to see it coming – all of us – because Trump isn’t even a terribly inventive character. You write Trump in a story, and I flag that character as a cartoon, as a cliché, as too much of an oafish bad guy to carry a story to a satisfying end. Shit, Trump is a Disney villain. If you know how to read, he’s obvious, blunt, and not worth our time.

Yet here’s another thing: Trump knows how to work a narrative, and he knows that many people don’t. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a first-person-POV, full-on narcissist, transparent in his attempts to badly persuade the audience to see him as the hero when we know he’s the villain. And he does this by spinning the easy narratives that we want to hear. And he succeeds because America doesn’t care enough about serious reading to understand how he works. And he succeeds, also, because as readers we fail to read the subplots, the desires and anxieties of the secondary characters who figure into the big book of elections. We trust the unreliable narrator, so we totally miss the point of the book. We root for Humbert Humbert. We vote for him. Or, just as dangerously, we recognize him as villainous but can’t understand how and why others might vote for him. That, too, is a failure of imagination.

What do the secondary characters of this narrative want, the ones who voted for Trump? Safety. Respect. Money. Power. At heart, these aren’t necessarily negative desires. But Trump understood how characters act toward releasing the tension of desire regardless of whether the release is positive or negative, and he offered a way to release it. In one direction: vote for him, a big middle finger to the establishment. In the other direction: be so consumed by righteous hatred of all he represents that we fail to recognize the real struggles of many Americans left out of the contemporary political conversation. His was a misdirection play, a narrative of deceit. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how we all, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how they, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. This book doesn’t end well for the characters, other than for the POV protagonist villain, who wins by telling the story he wants to tell so people hear what they want to hear and vote against, well, so much.

I’m optimistic, so I choose not to believe that nearly half of America is actively racist, misogynistic, bigoted, and corrupt. But I do see how a narrative can be built – by Trump and, broadly, many politicians acting in narrow self-interest and pretending it’s for the good of the nation – that exploits the desires of the nation and creates a narrative that convinces us to ignore evil and hate and pretend we’re voting well, and that also cultivates a narrative that encourages us to villainize and, therefore, fail to actually care about and address the real struggles of the voters waving their collective electoral central phalanges. I’ll say it again: America can’t read.

Think about the narratives spun:

Evangelical Christians believe, at heart, in justice, and generosity, and moral values – that’s a narrative! – but some (too many) vote for a character who spews anti-justice rhetoric and brags of grabbing pussies for sport. That’s a narrative, too, and one not consistent with the supposed core of a group of voters who, alas, were able to be led into a new narrative that didn’t fit. They are able to wash their hands of the affair and pretend that there’s something else in play, some story about moral values, and American theocracy, and truly God knows what.

Working class Americans believe in labor, and unity, and dignity. Yet some, too many, vote for an anti-union billionaire who claims, sure, I’ll bring back steel mills to a city that hasn’t had steel mills in decades and has, frankly, done fine reinventing itself. And they do it by selling out other workers, just because they can be led to a narrative of fear, that people who look different are scary. Racism is a narrative too, and Trump told it, and many read it uncritically.

And we liberals and progressives, too, throughout the election and certainly now unfairly blame so-called rednecks and hillbillies and mouthbreathing non-college-educated whites who, yes, did vote for Trump but, no, are not themselves cartoon villains. That’s a narrative, a false one, and a long one (I wrote a book about that). Politicians have tapped into it for a long time, creating a separation between “common” and “elite” and making it clear that there can be no connection. And we contribute to it by discarding rural Americans as lesser, tsking at them when they vote for Trump (yes, a bad vote, don’t get me wrong), but never actually listening to the problems they face. Our narrative of dismissiveness makes it easier for the hateful narratives – of racism, and Make America Great Again, on and on – to take root and grow like poisonous, malevolent, weeds.

As Americans, we believe in our own national narrative, of fairness and equal access and the bootstrap mythos. Yet we’re a country that just elected a president who talks in opposition to all of that. How? Because he tells a story and we don’t read it.

I mean not a lot more than this, which I also contend is a lot: Stories dictate the decisions we make in our lives. Consider rationality for a second, and the facts of our recent election. You line those up, and you compare one candidate to the other, and even if you want to make some bullshit argument about “both are flawed candidates” you cannot get the ledger to balance. One is clearly, factually, wrong. The other is not.

Yet, in the end, we vote on story, not facts. And half the nation preferred the surface story of Donald Trump and failed to critically read the narratives of both candidates and of America itself. This is where we went wrong.

Oh, and we got there because neoliberal politics have been working for years to emphasize how unimportant soft, nerdy things like stories are. And why? Because they know the power of story to unseat injustice and allow for a truly engaged and powerful citizenry.

So here we are today, in a creative writing workshop, a place where many might think we’re wasting our time. How can we fight the injustice of the world when all we do is string words together, make stories up – in fiction – navel gaze and find deep thoughts in our own lives – in nonfiction?

I don’t think we’re wasting our time. Not at all. I think now, more than ever, we see how powerful what we do really is. We are practicing reading. We are engaging narrative. We write stories to shape narratives, so that people can understand a villain when they see one. We work hard to make sure that stories exist, and that good stories exist, complicated ones, so that people will engage life with a complex relationship to narrative. We read and teach others to read, and write, and teach ourselves and everyone how to read the stories written on the world.

You understand what I’m doing here, right? That I’m partly explaining why being literary is so important, and why being genre is not, because the latter is all about cheap characters and cheap solutions. Donald Trump is genre. I can’t be more dismissive than that. I really can’t. Yes I can: he’s the novelization of a low-thought, big-budget action flick that somehow becomes a bestseller. And, worse, for some reason people want to give him the Pulitzer fucking Prize for it.

We’re better than that. We aspire to literature because we aspire to understand the complexity of human experience, in part so we don’t fuck up an election.

Which we just did.

So think about, say, a local politician – re-elected in a landslide despite being all kinds of wrong. And think about what he has said, echoing other national narratives, that students are wasting their time in majors like poetry and history and what he calls pre-Wal-mart majors. He wants to spin a narrative of fear, like Trump, that would suggest that you should be a productive worker to the economic machine and go to school to get a job. The risk, his story claims, is that if you engage in the sort of work we do in this very classroom you prepare yourself for unemployment.

Well he has it backward, and I won’t give him enough credit to suggest he knows this and recognizes the real threat. The real danger of us engaging in story is that he and others like him are at risk of being unemployed, tossed out of their intellectually-bankrupt political positions because we know how to read him, and America, and books. And that’s why we need to read and write.

Books have always been a threat to totalitarianism and ignorance, and ignorance always a tool of oppression. I’m fighting that fight by writing. And reading. And trying to spread narrative literacy so we don’t keep reading the same bereft narrative over and over again. We all do this so we can actually write and live the American narrative we want and deserve, that values all of us.

Thank you for joining me in that noble endeavor.

Ever better,


On Fragmentation

1. Is it a memoir if the text is divided into numbered entries, lyric nuggets that intersect loosely, puzzle pieces with edges rounded by overuse until the seams reveal air, no matter how tightly you press them?

2. Is air itself an act of memoir, gaps the fullest truth we can tell?

3. If, in fact, memoir requires a writer to consider the self from all angles, and if the memoirist is Maggie Nelson, and if the memoir is Bluets, does the choice to focus on a single color as inspiration create a through line of lyric gesture that can be read both as a cheating way to connect disparate ideas and a brilliant way to consider the way the discontinuity of life can be considered?

4. Unity is for fiction.

5. Poetic gesture cannot be considered only the domain of poetry.

6. How different, after all, are Descanso for My Father and Bluets? Each organizes around rupture.

7. A focal point, whether it is a lost father or a beloved-color, creates just enough distance for a writer to find the gap in which the self hides.

8. Yet the self hides well, always, can never be anything more stable than a shadow in a darkened room, a quick wink in the mirror, a dream forgotten as soon as you wake.

An Essay Surrounded by a Book

Sometimes, in prepping for class, I wonder if I’m really more interested in making extra work for myself, class-prep itself turned into some form of intellectual whittling, me occupying myself with something mundane as a means of avoiding other work piled up around the office. Case in point, this afternoon I gathered and transcribed the moments in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways when he writes bits that I would consider “essayistic” as opposed to narrative. The sum of that exercise? About 3,000 words of personal narrative and reflection. Basically, Least Heat-Moon wrote a fairly standard-length essay, exploded it into pieces, then wrote a lengthy travel narrative around it.

(Tomorrow, to avoid work, I’ll retype all 400-plus pages of Blue Highways that aren’t essay…for procrastinatory balance).

From a process standpoint, I imagine that Least Heat-Moon more likely wrote these bits and pieces of reflection along the way of his revision, not as a stand-alone piece (obviously), so “exploded” isn’t precisely the verb to use. Still, there’s a curious effect to considering the way such a small component of the book evades the erasure of self that serves as the narrative strategy. Frankly, to me the book would not be teachable without these 3,000 words, since they function as the only clear presence of the shaping author at work. Without them, the book would be mere travelogue, exhaustive for sure, certainly exhausting, but without a sense that the author had an idea of what the trip amounted to. Blue Highways without the fragmented essay would be every never-ending slide show clicked to life by every over-zealous relative ever.

But with the essay, Least Heat-Moon gives us a sense of the internal arc of the travel. He writes the pathway of the circular arc of his project, a trip that sets aside the linear progressive-narrative of American travel writing and, instead, returns to where it started. Or, as Least Heat-Moon writes:

Ego, craving distinction, belongs to the narrowness of now; but self, looking for union, belongs to the past and future, to the continuum, to the outside. Of all the visions of the grandfathers the greatest is this: To seek the high concord, a man looks not deeper within – he reaches farther out. (241)

Now, first let me acknowledge and, for now, set aside the deep problematics of this book, a subject on which I carried forth in my last class for the full hour: William Least Heat-Moon is William Trogdon, and it’s impossible to know how much of the pen name is a fakeout put-on and how much is authentic recognition of his declared native ancestry. Certainly, the way he writes and, in particular, cites Black Elk, doesn’t earn a ton of credibility: Black Elk is cited more as authentic and authoritative by non-natives than his existing “works” (written not by him) are universally accepted as definitive explanations of any particular American Indian perspective. In this vein, Least Heat-Moon/Trogdon reads a far piece closer to New Age than anything else. Or, as scholar Philip J. Deloria writes:

In the 1960s and 1970s, many spiritual seekers turned to Sun Bear, Rolling Thunder, and other so-called medicine people for guidance in questing after the Great Spirit. There was nothing innocent about these searches. In an oppositional culture, one targeted Christianity as part of the authoritarian structure from which one sought escape. And, as we saw in political and communal discourse, the symbols and practices of many countertraditions blurred and overlapped. Hallucinogenic drug use could be knit together with Plains Indian vision quest rituals, known for the intense experiences that came with their mental and physical deprivations. The paperback edition of John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1972), for example, promised eager seekers an account of a “personal vision that makes an LSD trip pale by comparison…” (Playing Indian 168)

So, there’s that…which is big…. I’m not saying; I’m just saying…

But, back to this: the overall drive of Least Heat-Moon’s “essay” is a growing desire to avoid the solipsism of the ego, to seek answers to the collisions of his life by reaching out into the world instead of retreating into the self. Certainly, this is an impulse that echoes the desires of literary memoir: the writing of the self isn’t an act directed toward the navel. Ultimately, Least Heat-Moon had no book without this essay, as the narrative expectations of travel require transit. The character has to change: we know this nugget from plenty of creative writing aphorisms (and it’s a good one!). In many typical travel narratives, the change happens by switching places — that’s the progress, some recognition of the deficiency of the pre-travel state alleviated by the act of travel. But to his great credit, early on in Blue Highways Least Heat-Moon recognizes and declares the folly in destroying the past as a means to find the future (4). Instead, his trip is counter-intuitively more internal, even as it is expressed externally.

Here, again, problematics: what I want to say is that Least Heat-Moon seeks and finds the shape of himself within the people he finds across America. He is searching for a lost America and for a lost self, each of which resides somewhere in the past. But the problem, here, is how his vision of the ideal America is tied up in overly-romanticized visions of working class America, just as his notions of the American Indian are bound too often in pop-cultural imagery (again, deeply problematically, if indeed the author has Osage ancestry). Yet, in considering the authorial impulse of Blue Highways, we see the author writing through the reconstruction of self as, in fact, a recognition of self, what he describes as “the power not of visions but of revision, the power to see again and revise” (399). This is a useful and important mechanism that uses the past as the foundation of the future. Blue Highways is not a recovery narrative but, like Lying, a discovery narrative.

Reading the transcription I prepared, I’m struck by how it quite nearly works as an essay, despite the many pages of interruption. Certainly, I can see how Least Heat-Moon could have shaped the material of this reflection into a solid, perhaps brilliant 20 page essay (I don’t mean this, really, as an indictment of his decision to, instead, write a long book). Instead, I mean to foreground how Blue Highways functions only because at its heart lies the act of the essay: the journey is the point, but there must always be a sense of a reflective self considering the act of that journey, making sense of it through the lens of time.

From that perspective, Blue Highways achieves an interesting sort of literary feat. It circles back (how like an essay!), yet it appears to go nowhere. The text itself is dominated by the multiple wheres of the narrative, yet the effect of the book is hidden within the choices of a wounded, carefully-thinking author. To me, the greatest section of the book, and the greatest example of the power of his essayistic impulse, focuses on the mysterious disappearing banana slug in his van. During one of the longest essayistic interludes, he writes of epiphany: “My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at. A man watching himself: that was the simulacrum on the window in the Nevada desert” (219). But he always writes, immediately after, of losing track of a banana slug held captive in his van, and of worrying about what might happen overnight:

Somewhere in Ghost Dancing was a slug – horned, fat, gelatinous with primeval slime, and free to ooze its footless way anywhere while I slept: up walls, onto bunks, over eyelids, across lips. Of all the nights for this to happen.

The biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one’s self a fool. But this was ridiculous. Never had I figured on this kind of humiliation. (220)

Here, Least Heat-Moon has found his objective correlative. The slug is recognition of self, what he’s been looking for and avoiding all the time. Now, his best hope is to wake terrified as he feels it wriggle across him in the middle of the night. “It” being a banana slug, of course…or the self. There’s tremendous power in this self-recognition, and an equally insightful lens through which to view the rest of the book. Every choice he makes — every landscape described, every person met on the page — is really a reflection of the self Least Heat-Moon wants to find. Somewhere in the darkness between those images lies the slug of self, the humiliating recognition of what’s really going on. The hidden essay of the book just might be that slug.

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.

Speaking to the Ghost of Frank Chin

I. On Ghosts

To suggest that ghosts are important in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior is hardly an earth-shattering observation. Nonetheless, considering the nature of ghosts in the memoir helps create a foundation for the several issues I’ve been thinking about the last few days. Ghosts are central to the reality of this book, not as figments of the imagination but as extant expressions of experience. In a way similar to Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, ghosts offer tangible presence on the page. They are not symbols of superstition, nor a mechanism to explain the less-than-fully-sophisticated background of Kingston’s mother, nor phenomenon to be explained away scientifically. Instead, Kingston writes of ghosts as a way to foreground and value the reality of non-Western-scientific thinking. The chapter of their appearance, “Shaman,” in fact begins with a subtle critique of the binary of Chinese superstition vs. Western science. In writing of her mother’s medical background, Kingston clarifies that she has both studied in the way a Western reader would expect and approve (school, diplomas, science) but also that her rigorous study included things a Western reader might not support (historical/traditional medicine). Further, we see that she becomes unable to continue her practice of medicine once she moves to the U.S. Kingston does not comment on this fact directly but, instead, relies on the layering of image and the deployment of ghost stories. Again, these are not representational stories. They are presented as real, and any dissonance a reader might feel — how can we believe something like that actually happened? — works to turn a careful reader inward. That very response is what Kingston writes against, even if it happens to be the very response she might have found in herself as she grew up in California, hating and distrusting the “superstitious” behavior of her mother. By reading ghosts, and realizing our own entrapment in our own overly-rational conception of the world. we begin to be able to read against the homogeneity of Western intellectual tradition and, more importantly, recognize how “superstition” is merely a word we apply to other people’s traditions we do not share.

II. On Voice

Also quite obvious in The Woman Warrior is the subordination of Kingston’s voice. Most of the book includes the telling of other people’s stories, whether they happen to be family stories or remixes of Chinese myth. Within the first four chapters, Kingston appears directly only at the end, creating context and intersection with her own life. But, largely, hers is only a tiny voice that bumps into the larger stories.

Kingston voice appears in force, finally, in “A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe,” a chapter that also presents an inversion of the previous patterns of the book. Here, we begin and stay primarily within Kingston’s experience, turning in the end to myth. “Here is a story my mother told me, not when I was young, but recently, when I told her I also talk story. The beginning is hers, the ending mine” (206), Kingston writes. The sequencing of this chapter functions crucially. Kingston “finds” her voice, which for most of the chapter comes across as immature, hateful, and naive. She browbeats a fellow child who doesn’t talk, abusing her verbally in a bathroom. She explodes at her mother and lays out all of the wrongs she has perceived, thanks to Chinese tradition. That catharsis follows a Western narrative arc — the hero finally speaks her mind! — but also leads Kingston to a recognition that a good reader will share:

Be careful what you say. It comes true. It comes true. I had to leave home in order to see the world logically, logic the new way of seeing. I learned to think that mysteries are for explanation…. Shine floodlights into dark corners: no ghosts. (204)

The voice that Kingston finds is an American voice that denies the Chinese, that considers the hyphenation of Chinese-American as a perpetual separation and, moreover, a requirement of choice. The voice that Kingston displays is one that cannot reconcile the halves, and so she reconciles in the direction that denies her mother. Yet Kingston writes this to show the dangers of this voice, that she herself misinterpreted the past (of herself, of her mother, of China) as something to be moved away from. The beauty of the ending of the memoir, then, is that Kingston returns to story, in fact ends with a story “instead” of her personal voice. But now, the careful reader I keep referring to, recognizes that the story that Kingston’s mother begins and she ends is, in fact, part of her voice. Story, like ghosts, is not a superstition to be unravelled rationally. Stories mean as stories do, not as codes, or signs of avoidance, or primitiveness, or lack of rigor. Stories mean. (Sidelight: I think I’m defending the importance of the study of literature in general right now, encouraging any fool who thinks the empirically measurable is a superior mode of knowing to just go read a book…an artful book that deals more in language and figurative thought than information.)

III. Frank Chin

… is not a careful reader. Or maybe he is. In certain respects, I don’t feel that I have the background and context to comment, but his infamous hatred of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work (and Amy Tans, and David Henry Hwang) seems to me to come from the same place as a careless reader’s condemnations of a book as boring, or worthless, or whatever. Chin’s argument is that Kingston is a white racist, deploying stereotypical Chinese backwardness that is devoured and championed by a broader white American culture in the name of self-congratulatory multiculturalism. That the reading and championing of any non-European writer is not necessarily a signal of true multicultural belief is, of course, a point where I cannot disagree with Chin — I can think of too many people, quite quickly, who claim to love certain books but do very little to actually resist the cultural dominance of White Male European modes of thinking. Certainly, there must be plenty of fans of Kingston et al who do the same thing. Reading The Woman Warrior becomes the beginning and end of many liberal mindsets.

But, on careful reading, I see the construction of The Woman Warrior as a tremendous defense against the hegemony of homogeneity. She presents voice and ghosts and allows for the pre-conceived notions of American readers to offer their own critique of the American self. The careful reader recognizes that he/she, like Kingston, views certain moments as curious, or exotic, or superstitious, or backward very much because he/she comes into the text already believing such things. The power of the memoir is to create dissonance if the careful reader: why did I do that? The power extends, ideally, in the same way that Kingston ends her book, with a recognition of what is lost when we find a narrow voice, that a failure to see ghosts is not a signal of intellectual advancement but, instead, fully a failure.

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.