Scott Russell Sanders

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.