Mark Doty

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.

(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.

Past as Prologue

Prologue

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

Prelude

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

Chapter One: On Prologues

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

Chapter Two: On Preludes

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

Chapter 3: Resolution

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