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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,

Matt

The Structure of Lyric Logic

Half a year ago or so, I was having a conversation with a group of writers about two memoirs: the lyrically-written and arranged Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, and a well-done but conventionally-structured memoir. One comment stuck in my craw and has lingered ever since. One of the other writers declared Fletcher’s book “interesting” in its structure, but “something poets have been doing forever.” This was delivered with a note of finality, and more than a little disdain. And it was spoken as a definitive reason why this speaker preferred the other book. My own opinions were precisely opposite. In comparing two books written with such fine prose, it was the structural play of Descanso that carried the day.

Yet that disdain…”something poets have been doing forever.” I understand the comment, and I don’t disagree. The structure of Descanso and, broadly, the lyric essay borrow heavily from the intuitive leaps of poetry. As I often say in fumbling to define the lyric essay, it is the gaps between two elements that allow a spark to fire, in engines and in writing. Lyric essays work because they bring material close enough to allow intuitive meaning, for reader and writer. And, let there be no mistake, my favorite essayists operate with a heavy use of gap: Annie Dillard, Lia Purpura, Brian Doyle, Brenda Miller el al. Descanso fits into this category easily, with the lyric arrangement of individual essays creating layers of meaning: the interplay between titles and vignettes in “White” and “Relics,” the numbered sections of “Man in a Box,” the flight of the owl in “Beautiful City of Tirzah.” And the collection itself creates a fuller, more complex sense of meaning and density through the repetition of image (what Charles Baxter calls “rhyming action”) and through the air creates between essays. In this assembly, the sum of the essays executes a different mathematics than the simple collection of units.

Yet that disdain… “something poets have been doing forever…” as an explanation of a collection’s limitations instead of its mastery, as a claim of derivative sub-quality… this is something I cannot understand, and with which I absolutely disagree. In fact, part of the beauty of lyric form in nonfiction writing is the recognition that artful arrangement of experience yields new gaps and, therefore, new understanding.

Lyric assembly creates tremendous power for a line like: “To fetch her, I must reach into the darkness, brushing my father’s things” (Fletcher 17). Viewed through the narrow lens of experiential explanation, that line means what it means: a young Harrison had to touch his dead father’s old belongings in a darkened closet. By grace of the assembly of that essay, and through the sequencing and invention of the whole Descanso, the line becomes so much more. It is a line of lyric electricity, the narrating Harrison and the young Harrison both reaching into a dark space, one literally into a closet and the other remembering reaching into that closet, one recognizing now that this moment led him to merely brush the surface of knowability and the other, as a child, registering a synaptic impulse at the moment that, later, could be unlocked through the act of writing.

Or in “Among the Broken Angels,” consider how these two lines work together:

“She has taken me as far as she can, or wants to go” (43).

-and-

“I stand stock-still, straining to hear it, or feel it, a presence in the land, a current of spirit and memory from which we can draw to fill the spaces within” (43).

Again, there are both literal and lyric intentions to these lines. At surface, they are about a tired mother no longer able to continue a journey with Harrison among graves, and about the author trying to listen to the silent messages of those graves. More importantly, the lines indicate the author’s recognition that his mother functions as a guide toward the discovery he hopes to make and that, now, he must move himself to find what he senses will satisfy the desire of his search. Essays build, then, with Fletcher gathering items — the portraits he references in his prologue — building momentum for the longest essay of the book, “Man in a Box” and, ultimately, to this line: “I assemble my father. Bit by bit a composite forms.” This assembly is not linear, and it is not built merely from an accumulation of facts. Instead, the composite is about the search for items that can be interpreted, intuited, made into the lyric expression of a father both long lost and always present.

The central motivation for my fellow writer’s disdain, I think, is the hard-to-shake residue of “factuality” always assigned to the field of nonfiction, whether or not the descriptor of “creative” is included. And I find it significant that this writer happened to be a poet who, eventually, wrote a memoir. I mean no insult to poets, but instead to suggest that sometimes writers from other genres slum it in the nonfiction world without a deep understanding of the traditions and contemporary impulses of the form (and, I should say, many of the great contemporary nonfiction writers came from other genres, and many from poetry, where the lyric impulse of that genre translates nicely from verse to prose). Indeed, a cursory glance at what “nonfiction” means in the lexicon of, say, the NYT Bestseller list illustrates exactly what I’m trying to say. A screen-shot of the current top 5:

NF Top 5

Of these five, none fits the definition of lyric, and really none is what I’m talking about when I talk about memoir or creative nonfiction, though In the Kingdom of Ice comes perhaps close. The point is, of course, that Descanso‘s form is, curiously, belittled when it borrows from poetry precisely because the popular definition of nonfiction is so limiting and, generally, dully factual. Or dumbly ephemeral, in the case of, say, Unphiltered. Very much because so many think nonfiction is this one thing that it has always been (but really hasn’t) no latitude for lyric space is afforded, even by serious writers who ought to know better.

I’ve entered the gravity of soapboxing now, but I’ll indulge that for another moment. Reading Descanso offers a wonderful example of the power lying within the “true narrative” to exceed the boundaries of both narrative and the rigorous assembly of fact. Instead, the application of lyric logic gives Descanso the kind of artistic zing that we describe when we utter the word “literary.”

On Connection and Convergence

My teaching load this semester: 1) An advanced seminar focused on the construction of narrative self in memoir (the focal point of these blog posts, of course); 2) An advanced creative nonfiction workshop; 3) A First Year Seminar taking as subject matter the implications and effects of the material aspects of writing — this is a place where early assignments have been the loading of ink into a fountain pen, the writing of letters, and the sewing of books. As is always the case, I find myself startled by the ways the classes come together, even when some of the intersections are expected. Today, in thinking about the totality of Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories, on this the final entry dedicated solely to that book, I find myself thinking particularly about these intersections.

Today, in that first year seminar, while students finished sewing and gluing their custom-assembled journals, we chatted also about a few passages in the first two chapters of Sven Birkerts Gutenberg Elegies. I made a big deal out of this one, particularly in the wake of Apple’s release of its new watch: “[Technologies] modify our reflexes and expectations at the same time that they wrap us up in an invisible fabric” (xiii).

We talked, then, about how timezones were first normalized at the service of railroads, and how analog wristwatches (and clocks in general) were a technology that allowed for the separation of the day into units of time instead of units of astronomy, how time makes the content of a class oriented to its length (50 minutes) instead of its material (why not stay until we’re done sewing our books?), how measuring time creates the ability to establish the concept of a work day, how the ubiquity of cellphones leads to the demise of pay phones which indicates or cultivates a turn toward individual resources (I have a cell phone) over communal resources (let’s find a pay phone), and how the Apple Watch will likely condition our expectations for connectivity in new, unforeseen directions, shifting our relationship to our world in some fundamental way. And, right now, all of this makes me think about memoir as a “technology” that “modif(ies) our reflexes and expectations.”

Isn’t this, after all, what Hampl addresses when she foregrounds the intellectual mode of the essay? Isn’t this, also, the way an orientation toward creative nonfiction indicates a writer’s particular attitude toward the world as different than that of the poetic or fictional self? As Hampl writes, “Subject matter is only half the story. It may be possible to trace the lines leading to and from a writer’s life and art in an attempt to reveal why someone writes about this and not about that. But form is a tougher nut: Why a memoir, why not a novel?” (202). Immediately after, she describes a novelist friend who “mistrusted memoir because it would not allow her to speak her soul’s truth” (203), and in the following essay, how seeing her own name peppered through a book written in another language, by a friend from another country, created unease, since Hampl had no idea what was being said about her. Yet there was a name — a particular kind of truth there, something not easily dodged by claims of fictionalization.

Thus the memoirist’s desire to write directly from life is a move with great stakes; you lose friends, as Hampl has. And it is also a move that creates a different sort of linkage between experience and interpretation. As I am planning to accent in my advanced workshop tomorrow, creative nonfiction lives in the space where experience is usefully interpreted (if not fully understood, and even if always provisionally) by the author. In I Could Tell You Stories, Hampl enters the exploration of lived and read experience, as a means to usefully provisionally define just what it is we do when we memoir. I so dearly love, then, the way she sets out, finally, to pinpoint the genre: “For all of that deep pleasure of retrieval, memoir is not about the past. As I understand it, memoir is not a matter of nostalgia. Its double root is in despair and protest” (204). Yes, here she explains precisely why her early reading of Walt Whitman didn’t persist, because her sense of his importance to national identity was about nostalgic blindness instead of despair at how national identity failed to meet the ideal, and protest at how we allow ourselves to live that failure.

“Out of the dream of ruin and disintegration emerges a protest which becomes history when it is written from the choral voice of a nation,” Hampl writes, “and memoir when it is written from a personal voice” (204). Here lies the great convergence of the day, then, how the development of new communication technology intersects with the craft-attention of the meaning-making author then with the inspection of Hampl’s narrative self. What she argues is precisely what technological hyper-connectivity is not: that the idiosyncratic personal lens applies to mutual experience a useful and illuminating interpretation. The Apple Watch, as a symbol of the current apex of personal communication technology, implies a connection within shared consumerism. The lens is identical: a watch to be bought and synched to your cell phone. The lens makes data out of experience, smoothes and nullifies the personal into algorithm. Memoir, instead, seeks to turn data into experience, into singular experience. The risk of memoir is to expose the personal voice and, in turn, be seen as out of synch with the flow of the masses. But that any such flow exists can only be considered as a figment of a collective lack of imagination. Memoir, as Hampl writes it, is an antidote to both cloying personal story-bores and reductive national mythology. Memoir resists “history” by refusing to play the game of universality: it boldly stakes out its subjectivity as vital to foreground how multiple subjectivities will view the same moment in different ways. In that way, a collective history of memoir creates a more truthful collection of voices. There is no buffing of the hard edges, because the edges are precisely where the reality of existence creates the most electricity, darts of meaning arcing in the space between reader and writer.

A Word On This Project

1) As an ongoing project, this site will function as a kind of DYI e-course.

2) Each semester, I will choose one of the courses I teach as the focus of the blog.

3) Before each class meeting, I will write about the texts on hand for the coming day.

4) These entries will be partially developed, probing, writing-to-know sorts of thoughts.

5) If someone would choose to do such a thing, he/she could read the books of the semester alongside me and “take the course.” Sort of. At least, he/she could read the books on tap, and read the things I have to offer, and then think individually about the work being read.