Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Writing Our Own Non-Studies of D. H. Lawrence

geoff dyer sheer rageGeoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage [Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence] is just about the best non-study of D.H. Lawrence that I’ve ever read.  Not that I’ve read any other non-studies of Lawrence, or any actual Lawrence studies, for that matter.  But if you want to read a truly superb non-study of Lawrence, I can’t recommend Out of Sheer Rage highly enough.  You will learn some things about Lawrence — but at a slant—and you will learn a world about Geoff Dyer.

That’s what I liked about it.

I’m a big Geoff Dyer fan.  Call it a crush if you like. I won’t argue. It’s a literary crush.  I find Geoff, as I like to call him, about the best company I can imagine: for entertaining me highly, making me laugh out loud, and most of all, for expressing to a T how life feels, at least to me a lot of the time: the existential angst of it all.  Geoff is hilariously human, full of foibles, self-deprecatingly self-aware, with a navel-gazing self-consciousness, a keen intelligence about the human condition, and a love-hate relationship with his best subject, himself.  He’s willing to let you in, up close and personal, so that it feels as if you’re his intimate.  He’s a mess, and he’s willing to tell you all about it.  But he does so with such aplomb, such delicious, sharp, acerbic observations about himself and everything around him, that to read him is to feel truly vindicated in your own human shortcomings.

The idea behind Out of Sheer Rage is that Dyer intends to write a serious study of D.H. Lawrence, the writer who most made him want to become a writer.  But he keeps procrastinating, and Sheer Rage becomes a painfully comic description of his efforts to get a grip.

Here’s how the book opens:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.  Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.  If,  I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober—I can remember saying that word ‘sober’ to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented ring—if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together. I succeeded in applying myself but what I applied myself to—or so it seems to me now, now that I am lost in the middle of what is already a far cry from the sober academic study I had envisaged—was to pulling apart the thing, the book, that was intended to make me pull myself together.

I love this voice, and if you don’t, stay away from Geoff Dyer.  He won’t be your cuppa.  But he sure is mine.

The result is that Dyer ends up writing this very book — Out of Sheer Rage  — which never manages to actually be the serious, intended study of Lawrence (though there is much about Lawrence in it, based mainly on his letters; no dazzling critical reading of Women in Love, however; so sorry, WIL scholars).  But it is about a lot else, mainly the anxieties, frettings, and grouses of Everyman Dyer.  The title comes from a quote of Lawrence’s, regarding his book on Thomas Hardy: “Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid—queer stuff—but not bad.”  The perfect epigraph for and description of Dyer’s own book on Lawrence. Continue reading “Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Writing Our Own Non-Studies of D. H. Lawrence”

Salter and Aciman on the Past

Street in Rome (Photo by Sean O'Neill@oneillsdc5)
Portico d’Ottavia in Rome  (Photo by Sean O’Neill@oneillsdc5)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m teaching an online memoir course.  I’m captivated by watching my students grapple with and write about the past.  Here are two passages for writers and anyone else who muses about the nature of memory, one from a novel and one from an essay, both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The first is from the narrator of the novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

And this from “Intimacy,” an essay by Andre Aciman in his collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere.

In this passage, Aciman revisits after many decades the street in Rome where he lived for three years as a boy, having emigrated there from Egypt with his family, while they waited to get visas to America.

One more block and scarcely five minutes after arriving, our visit was over.  This always happens when I go back to places. Either buildings shrink over time, or the time it takes to revisit them shrinks to less than five minutes. We had walked from one end of the street to the Continue reading “Salter and Aciman on the Past”

Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?

Half a Life by Darin StraussThis week in the online memoir course I’m teaching, the students are working on characterization, both their own and that of others. We’re reading a chapter in Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington called “Writing about Living People,” in which she talks about how writers must come to their own decisions about their responsibilities to those whose lives are entwined with their own, and how one must balance the reasons for writing a story using real names against the harm that might be done to someone else.  I had thought this matter of what we owe people we write about was settled in my mind. I always counseled and taught that when writing about other people, one must try to arrive at the largest understanding and perspective, and while I didn’t think that was always easy, it seemed to me obvious and relatively simple.  Then last week I read a memoir by Darin Strauss called Half a Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and my complacency on the issue was given a good shake.

Half a Life is the story of how, when he was a senior in high school, Strauss was driving his dad’s Oldsmobile when a girl he barely knew, a junior at the same school, inexplicably swerved her bike across two lanes, collided with his car, and was killed.  Even though he was not responsible for the girl’s death, Strauss struggled with guilt that haunted him for decades.

I felt riveted by the writing and the story when I first started the memoir.  But I became troubled by Strauss’s writing about the girl’s family.  It has surprised and puzzled me how much this has bothered me. I won’t say it’s keeping me awake at night (other things do that), but I found myself thinking about it a good deal and feeling troubled by it. It has made me revisit the issue of the writer’s responsibility to other people.

Strauss first met the Zilkes when he attended Celine’s funeral, which was excruciating for him.  He acknowledges that his presence complicated Celine’s parents’ grief with the question of how they should treat him at the funeral.  “A possibly brave act for me, but awful for them.”

He describes the initial meeting with Mr. Zilke:

In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, Mr. Zilke settled on an expression, a hard-won glint of: I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be.

It occurred to me in reading this difficult scene that it was being filtered through a tremendously subjective narrator, which I suppose is true of everything in memoir. But I didn’t completely trust Strauss’s recounting of Continue reading “Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?”

Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions

Hanel_cover_small (1)The cover of Minnesota writer Rachael Hanel’s memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, is curiously upbeat, practically gay, with its jokey title in bright white, yellow, aqua, and salmon letterings. A better cover to my mind would have been a skull, for truly this book is a memento mori. Maybe the cover designer was a Minnesotan who, like the folks from rural Minnesota whom Hanel captures so knowingly, was afraid to face the real subject, death and its bride, grief. Maybe the cover designer thought it would put readers off to sense how dark this book is.  But to me that’s its great strength.  Death was the school of Hanel’s childhood, and she tried to learn its lessons. But when it struck suddenly and close to home, she was brought to her knees, finding nothing in her education had truly prepared her for what personal loss and grief really feel like.

Hanel grew up in Waseca, the daughter of Digger O’Dell, who had a grave digging monopoly in that area of south-central Minnesota, digging more than 100 graves a year. Her father, Paul Hager, took the name from a character on the Life of Riley.  He loved the outdoor work, having spent the prior 14 years from right after high school slopping pigs and cleaning manure off concrete floors with noxious chemicals. He and his wife also mowed and tended the cemeteries, often accompanied by their three children. Rachael was three when her father became a gravedigger, so she grew up playing around headstones, learning math by subtracting birthdates from end dates, seeing toys and balloons people left on babies’ graves, and studying the mystery of death, captured in the photograph of a young girl in a locket on one of the gravestones.

It didn’t strike her as anything special or unusual to have a gravedigger for a dad, and she says, at least in the beginning, that spending so much time around graves and being exposed to so much mortality didn’t bother her.  Her parents were modest, practical, hard-working people with a secure and respected place in the community. Death and burial were just part of life, just what they did, and it didn’t occur to them that their impressionable daughter might be affected by so much exposure to death, nor would they have known what to do about it.

But at least as this memoir is shaped, Hanel was affected by all the death, to the point of being somewhat obsessed with it.  She was certainly on her own in processing it; death wasn’t discussed and people in that area, “stoic Germans and Scandinavians, reserved northern Europeans who wore stony faces for the world while they withered inside” taught her nothing about how to deal with her own grief, when it came to her as a staggering blow.   She was fifteen and her father forty-six when he died in great pain within three days of being diagnosed with cancer. At the real heart of this memoir is the story of a daughter’s love and loss, and the aftermath.

Hanel recounts an incident when she was five years old, standing at the grave of her uncle, being horrified that his daughter Michelle was actually sobbing in public. This raw emotion frightened the young Rachael, who “felt as embarrassed for her as I would have felt had she been physically naked.” This is her first glimpse of the real pain that accompanies death, the first time she grasps what losing a loved one can mean to someone:

The cemetery took on a different meaning. It became more than an expanse of lawn marked with jutting granite and marble teeth, more than just a place where Dad and Mom worked. It was no longer the place where I sat in the pickup with my books until I could go home and play with my Barbies. Instead, the places where I watered flowers or picked up sticks were the same places families like Michelle’s had stood. Holes were opened to receive their bounty, then closed forever. Bodies rested below me, invisible tenants.

But it is only when she experiences the death of her father that the enormity and confusion of death is truly brought home to her.

Continue reading “Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions”

Andre Aciman’s NYT Piece on Memoirists’ Relationship to the Truth

Andre Aciman
Andre Aciman

On Monday I started teaching an online course on writing the book-length memoir for Stanford University Continuing Studies.  For the next 10 weeks my students and I will be thinking and talking (or I should say e-mailing) about writing memoir, including the question that the Watergate hearings posed so beautifully: “Where does the truth lie?” I’ve always enjoyed the double entendre of “lie” in that line.  How do the facts of the past and the truth get along? It’s clear that the facts do not produce the truth, not the emotional, psychological truth that the modern memoir demands.  But how important are the facts, and what exactly are they? Are details facts? Are they a form of truth? And if so, which ones and to what degree?  Anyone writing out of memory, out of the past, quickly encounters subtle and difficult encounters with facts and truth.

This was brought home to me when I read a fascinating opinion piece called “How Memoirists Mold the Truth” in this past Sunday’s New York Times, by the memoirist and novelist Andre Aciman.  Aciman was born in 1951 in Alexandria, Egypt.  He grew up in a French-speaking multinational Jewish family which had settled in Alexandria in 1905.  He moved with his family to Italy when he was 15 and then to New York at 19.  He’s currently a professor at the graduate center of City University of New York, where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. He’s the author of the Whiting award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995) as well as a number of other books, and he has a new novel coming out in April called Harvard Square.

He opens his essay with the story of his mother furiously rearranging the living room furniture whenever she was enraged and fed up with her life. This was her attempt to try to take control and put a new face on things, in light of not being able to change much else about her situation. It taught him, Aciman says, “that if changing the layout of your problems doesn’t necessarily solve them, it does make living with them easier.”  He extends this lesson to the work of memoirists, who, “unable to erase the ugliest moments of their past or unwilling to make new ones, can shift them around.  They don’t distort the truth, they nudge it.”

I’m not sure what he means by “nudge” here.

He says that everyone has reasons for altering the past.  But isn’t the work of memoirists the exact opposite—to be true to the past to the best of one’s ability?  It’s the word “altered” that gives me trouble here.  He continues in the same paragraph, “We may want to embellish or gloss over the past, or we may want to repress it, or to shift it just enough so as to be able to live with it. Some, in an effort to give their lives a narrative, a shape, a logic, end up altering not the facts they’ve known but their layout – exactly what my mother was doing.”

I accept that memoirists give their lives a narrative shape by rearranging the material to some extent.  In my memoir Crossing the Moon, for example, I had my mother say a line to me (“People who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.”) in a scene in which she did not actually say that line. She did say those exact words to me, only I’m not sure when or where – I think over the phone. So I altered not the facts but the layout, to make for a better read.

But Aciman loses me when he says we may want to embellish, gloss over, repress or shift the past so as to be able to live with it. That seems to me quite different from rearranging material that actually occurred.

But Aciman is right when he says, “Writing alters, reshuffles, intrudes on everything.  As small a thing as a shifty adverb, or an adjective with attitude, or just a trivial little comma is enough to reconfigure the past [I think he’s inflating that comma a bit but never mind  . . .].”  Anyone who writes memoir knows it’s not the simple, straightforward act some people imagine it to be to write about the past.

Aciman recounts how in 1990 he published an account of a walk with his brother on their last night in Alexandria. Four years later, when he published his memoir, Out of Egypt, he described that walk as one he took alone. He took that same walk when he returned to Egypt in 1995, to see whether he remembered walking there alone or with his brother. A third option presented itself: it occurred to him that he might’ve made the whole thing up. The written version or I should say versions had taken the place of what actually happened.

Today I remember the walk I took alone, but only because I spent more time writing it. Ask me which of the two is truer, I’d say, ‘Probably the walk with my brother.’ Ask me again and I might admit making the whole thing up. Ask me yet again, and I won’t remember.

I found this confession totally candid. Certainly once you try to write the past, what you’ve written tends to become the memory, rather than the other way around.  As Annie Dillard advised in her essay “To Fashion a Text”:

Don’t hope in a memoir to preserve your memories.  If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid—eschew—writing a memoir.  Because it is a certain way to lose them.  You can’t put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts.  The work battens on your memories.  And it replaces them.

Aciman says a similar thing when he relates how within a few weeks after his mother had rearranged the furniture, it was no longer possible to recall the previous living room configuration.

Words radiate something that is more luminous, more credible, and more durable than real facts, because under their stewardship, it is not truth we’re after; what we want instead is something that was always there but that we weren’t seeing and are only now, with the genius of retrospection, finally seeing as it should have occurred and might as well have occurred and, better yet, is still likely to occur.  In writing, the different between the no more and the not yet is totally negligible.

This he calls “the spectral realm of quantum mnemonics,” and thus leaves some of us, myself included, in the dark.

It’s a maddening essay. He’ll say something that seems quite brilliant and then go off the deep end!  As you can see in the quote above.  He’s into ontological waters where I can’t swim.

There seem to be two camps of memoir readers/critics. Or perhaps it would be better to describe these as two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand are the Fact Sticklers. They want to know whether the brother was there or not, dammit! It matters to them, and it undercuts the reliability of the memoirist who plays fast and loose with the facts. Aciman’s answer to this is that “Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked.” This is the sort of thing that makes the Facts Sticklers apoplectic.

At the other end of the spectrum are the loosey-goosey Literary Liberals. They don’t care whether the brother was there or not; they are after something else. They want to know if the scene works, if it’s true to something below and beyond mere factual accuracy.  Is it true in the deepest sense, in a spiritual, emotional, psychological way?  Is it what the persona of the memoir actually felt? The brother is a detail which may or may not matter. They trust the writer to make that determination. They, like Aciman, may not believe that the past is solid and can be captured with a high degree of accuracy. They accept the role of the imagination in the writing of memoir. They don’t want things that matter made up– but they’re willing to accept the kind of nudging, perhaps, that  Aciman seems to be championing.

Most memoir writers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They’re doing their best to be true to the past as they know it. At the same time, they understand that the act of writing transforms the past, replaces it, and creates it to some extent.

Aciman says, “We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.”

I don’t think this is true for most memoirists. They write out of the person they really are now about the person they once happened to be.  But maybe Aciman means that in the writing, we become or at least access our deeper, truer selves, both now and then. We write a version of the past that is truer than a mere recitation of factually accurate details.  I haven’t read the two passages of that last walk in Alexandria that Aciman refers to. But I can imagine that his focus was on some personal truth of the experience, what he would call one version of the past, that was true, not literally to exactly what happened, but to the felt-sense of the experience, the literary truth of it.

I don’t mind, myself, that he nudged the brother out of the way.

P.S.  The online comments following Aciman’s piece make for fascinating reading as people react to his provocative piece.

The Still Point of the Turning World: A Moving and Uneven Memoir

The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp

Emily Rapp was a creative writing student of mine at St. Olaf College in the early 1990s.  She was an unusually gifted writer even as an undergraduate, standing such head and shoulders above the other students that it was a given that she was headed for a successful career as a writer.  She was also lovely, a beautiful, vivacious redhead, delightful in every way to the extent that I knew her.  She had just about everything she needed already in place: a keen intelligence; a gift for language; a rich, complex sensibility; and a literary style and voice already well developed.  The only thing she lacked was age and experience.  Time would take care of both of those.

She did indeed go on to a distinguished career as a writer and professor of creative writing.  In 2007 she published a memoir called Poster Child, which, for reasons lost to me now, I never finished reading.  I think the subject matter, her experiences with having her left foot amputated at age four due to a congenital defect, and losing her entire leg by the age of eight, didn’t engage me sufficiently.  Of course it is about more than that—about living with a disability, about self-image, especially as a female, about acceptance of one’s body, no matter if flawed.

Emily now has a new memoir out which is getting a lot of attention, such as a full-length, positive review in The New York Times Book Review.  She was on the Today Program (I know because we’re friends on FB), and the book is being widely reviewed and well received.  The memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, traces her ordeal and grief over the shocking diagnosis in January, 2011, that her son, Ronan, nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, an always fatal, genetic, degenerative disorder that usually results in death by the age of four or five.

At the suggestion of a friend, Emily began blogging about her experience.  The blog, Little Seal, (“Ronan” means “little seal” in Irish) was named one of the 25 Best Blogs of 2012 by Time Magazine.  Emily had found a great outlet for the turmoil in which she was swept up, and an appreciative, sympathetic audience.

Still Point has some of the most moving, beautiful writing that I’ve read in any grief memoir.  Especially in quiet moments with Ronan, she captures the heartbreaking sadness of losing her baby bit by bit:

I stopped for a moment and gently removed his hood. I let the wind ruffle his red-blond hair and I looked at his sleeping face and I rocked him for a bit in the sun.  We kept walking into a tunnel strewn with dry leaves where both our shadows disappeared and we were alone.  I stood still and listened to his breath and mine.  I felt a momentary flash of peace, a great still pause.  T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world,’ and of course this terribly tender love, and I thought, This is all I have to give, and I tried with all my strength to pass that feeling into Ronan, and then I thought, Remember this.

But too often in the book, at least for my taste, there is something manic, perhaps a bit hysterical (and why not!), repetitive, and overly Continue reading “The Still Point of the Turning World: A Moving and Uneven Memoir”

The Curious Case of Sylvia Smith, Memoirist of the Banal

Sylvia Smith  photo by Oliver Lim/Evening Standard/ permission of Rex USA
Sylvia Smith  photo by Oliver Lim/Evening Standard/ permission of Rex USA

I don’t know about you, but I love a good obituary.  So you can imagine how I perked up when I saw this headline in the March 2nd NYTimes: Sylvia Smith, 67, Memoirist of the Life Banal.

I know a thing or two myself about the life banal, but I’ve never considered it grist for the memoir mill.

I had to read on.

Sylvia Smith was not, apparently, an interesting person.  British, she dropped out of high school at 15, never married, “never had a great adventure or suffered a great misfortune, and never read books by most accounts.”  Still, I found the obituary (well written, by Paul Vitello), if not Smith herself, rather riveting.  I have been thinking about Smith and her writing ever since.

According to the Times obit, she began writing her memoirs in her late 40s, when illness and a government disability pension allowed her to quit the last of a long series of secretarial jobs, mostly as a temp.  Her first book, Misadventures, was published in 2001 when she was 55, after hundreds of rejection letters.

The book, a plainly written, deadpan chronicle of an ordinary life, seemed to push the allowable boundaries of ordinary, entering an edge-of-space world where critics quarrel over literary metaphysics.  Reading Misadventures, they were divided over whether they saw a bad joke or a kind of outsider-art masterpiece in a passage like this:

“Early in December, Carol asked me, ‘What day is Christmas?’  I replied, ‘I don’t know.’ The following morning she told me, ‘Christmas is on the 25th of December.’ I replied, ‘I know that, but I thought you meant what day of the week.’ She didn’t believe me.”

O-kay . . .

Was this—as one critic described it—“another nail in the coffin of our cultural life” or, as another reviewer saw it, “an existential classic, a work of dry, mordant wit that pricked the fakery in most celebrity-memoir writing.”

Ms. Smith said her intention was for her books (along with Misadventures, Appleby House and My Holidays) simply to be “hysterically funny.”  According to the obituary, she laughed out loud while writing them and never gave a thought to existential philosophy.

She just liked writing books and wanted to get published, she said.

It’s in her favor that she intended to be funny. There’s that laughing out loud while she wrote bit.  But can one be funny and banal at the same time?

Of course there’s the possibility that she wasn’t funny.  And maybe just banal.

Here’s her description of her room in a rooming house:

“There was a single bed against the far wall, and everything was shabbily furnished in either red or white, with the walls, wardrobe, wall cupboard, bedside chest of drawers and fridge in white, and two armchairs, the carpet and curtains in red.”

Kind of a creative writing teacher’s nightmare . . . Continue reading “The Curious Case of Sylvia Smith, Memoirist of the Banal”

Tony Earley and “Jack and the Mad Dog”


Tony Earley

As soon as I saw that Tony Earley had a short story in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, I sat right down and read it.  This was An Occasion for me.  I’m a big Tony Earley fan, based on two of his books: Jim the Boy, a novel published in 2000, and Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True, 2001, a collection of autobiographical pieces about his Southern upbringing.  I love his writing, which is lyrical, full of wonderful Southern details familiar to me, and deceptively simple.  He grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, I in the foothills of South Carolina.  He teaches at Vanderbilt. 


Jim the Boy

When I read Jim the Boy, I was amazed at its sweetness and simplicity.  It’s a coming of age story about a ten year old boy in 1934 in North Carolina.  The prose was honed to perfection in a way that few writers can attain.  I no longer have a copy of it, but Jim the Boy came back to me with a jolt of deep pleasure when I saw his name in The New Yorker. 

Here’s a sample of his writing from Somehow Form a Family:

In July 1969, I looked a lot like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Griffin Show. I was a small boy with a big head.  I wore blue jeans with the cuffs turned up and horizontally striped pullover shirts.  I was the brother in a father-mother-brother-sister family.  We lived in a four-room house at the edge of the country, at the foot of the mountains, outside a small town in North Carolina, but it could have been anywhere.

[I’m skipping a few paragraphs here.]

In July 1969, we did not have much money, but in the hierarchy of southern poor, we were the good kind, the kind you would not mind living on your road. We were clean.  Our clothes were clean.  My parents worked.  We went to church.  Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture.  We had meat at every meal—chicken and cube steak and pork chops and ham—and plenty of milk to drink.  We were not trashy.  Mrs. White [a neighbor] would not sit with her ashtray in the kitchen of trashy people.  Trashy people lived in the two houses around the curve past Mr. Harris’s.  When Daddy drove by those houses we could see that the kids in the yard had dirty faces. They were usually jabbing at something with a stick.  Shelly and I were not allowed to ride our bicycles around the curve.

“They were usually jabbing at something with a stick” is an irresistible sentence to me. How simple this writing appears, as if we’re hearing a child or a simple man.  But the rhythm of the sentences, the perfect, precise selection of detail, and the acute sense of this world are most definitely sophisticated. 

Continue reading “Tony Earley and “Jack and the Mad Dog””

Cheryl Strayed on WILD, Her Writing Life, and Memoir


Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

While Cheryl Strayed was in Minneapolis as part of her book tour for Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, which I posted about previously, I went to hear her twice, once for a reading and once for a reading/talk called “The Art of Memoir.”  I’m hoping to pass along to you some of what she had to say about the book, her writing life, and memoir.  She’s so great, such a pro, so well-spoken, and so generous in her answers to questions.  Given the book’s popularity, you can find about a zillion interviews with her and reviews of Wild on the Internet. She has links to her brilliant essays and to some of her Dear Sugar columns on her website.  Of course the best thing is to read the book!

She said of the Wild hike, things in her life were coming undone when she saw a guidebook on hiking the PCT at the REI store here in Minneapolis.  Something about it spoke to her, even though she’d never gone backpacking. She had hiked and camped a lot but had never actually backpacked.  She saw the hike as a way of “walking herself backward – to be the person she was meant to be and the person her mother had raised her to be.”  She described Wild as being about the question “how do we bear what we can’t bear?”  She means not just her bearing her pack on the hike, which weighed too much for her to lift except for “hunching in a remotely upright position,” and which she nicknamed “Monster,” but also “how do I bear living in the world without my mother in it?”  She walked ninety-four days, which provides the backbone for the book, the external story of the hike itself. 

She said one of the challenges of writing was how to make monotony and tedium interesting – since many of her days were the same, spent in solitude, waking up, eating her cereal, hiking all day, making camp, eating her dinner, and sleeping.  In my opinion she definitely made the hike interesting every step of the way, by careful selection and structuring of events and people, interweaving the back story of losing her mother and losing her way as she spiraled into affairs, heroin, divorce, and unresolved grief.  As she said, “memoir is so much the art of selection.” 

Since I admire how well plotted and structured her memoir is, keeping us turning the pages to see what happens next and feeding us essential back story seamlessly, I asked Cheryl if she rearranged events or did they occur on the trail as they’re presented in the book.  I was curious about this, because it seemed so perfect the way things fell where they did. She said yes and no, that usually things happened where they did, but certainly with the back story she might rearrange when she thought of something and put it in where it fit best.  She was essentially telling two stories, one of the hike and one of everything that brought her to that.  She’s very skillful in making them both vivid, and seemingly natural in terms of flow, because, as she said, “memoirists are story tellers.”   She kept a detailed journal on the hike, and used it for specific details.  She did her best to research and verify things she could, including contacting some of the people she encountered on the trail.  But the memoir is how she remembers things. It’s her “subjective truth” of the experience.  She believes nonfiction writers have an obligation to the truth but it’s obvious when you read Wild that it is distilled and shaped, not just a factual (boring) record of what happened.  It’s written by a story teller. 

She believes that a memoirist’s job is not just to tell what happened, but to bring meaning to it.  It was a good decade after the hike before she understood what it meant.  “The book wouldn’t be half the book it is if I had written it a year after the trip.”  She had thought of herself as a fiction writer, and as an accidental memoirist, when she began writing essays.  She loves writing nonfiction, she said, because of the intensity of the voice.  “Nonfiction has the thinnest screen between writer and reader.”  Continue reading “Cheryl Strayed on WILD, Her Writing Life, and Memoir”

WILD: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — a Wonderful Memoir!

Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail
Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an amazing and wonderful book.  It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s beautifully written, so skillful in its craft, and so deep in its heart and feelings.   I found it totally engrossing, entertaining, and moving.

I think you would find it equally fine, but I do admit I’m prejudiced.  Cheryl was a student of mine in a graduate level fiction writing class in the fall of 1990, when she was senior at the University of Minnesota.  It was that following spring that Cheryl’s mother died of lung cancer, forty-five days after her shocking, unexpected diagnosis, at the age of forty-five.   When Cheryl came to my office to tell me, we both cried.  I have never seen anyone as heart-broken.  Even at twenty-two, Cheryl was one of the best students I have ever had. There was something so special about her, so bright and receptive, mature, warm, talented, and genuine. I felt honored to know her and call her a friend.  I recognized, as anyone would, that she was already on her way to being an exceptional writer.  Over the years she worked hard at developing her talent, with a commitment and sacrifice few people are able to muster.  She published some knockout essays, and in 2005 she published an excellent autobiographical novel, Torch, that deals with her mother’s death. But it is with Wild that she has achieved a spectacular success:  Knopf’s lead spring book; rave reviews in The New York Times, the NYTBR and just about everywhere else; a spread in Vogue; foreign rights sales in many countries; a big book tour; the movie rights bought by Reese Witherspoon; and #6 on the NYT nonfiction best seller list this week. None of this is a flux or some literary form of mass hysteria.  People are responding with such “wild” enthusiasm because the book actually deserves it.

The memoir braids the surface story of twenty-six year old Cheryl hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone with the emotional back story of losing her mother, having her family disintegrate after her mother’s death, and her own subsequent “wilding,” in which she began having affairs, got into heroin, divorced her young husband whom she loved, and changed her name to Strayed, because, as she puts it:

“I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

She’s terrific at capturing the physical aspects of the hike itself, but what creates a lot of the poignancy and power of the book is Cheryl’s ability to capture her inner life, the exploration of the past that has brought her to this necessary journey alone and on foot. She convincingly tracks her internal movement along the trail from damaged and wounded to strong and whole.   Both journeys—the external and the inner one—are incredible feats of fortitude, effort, pain, and authenticity.  I certainly felt that I had traveled with her, so intimately does she let us into her life and self.  Her voice is so authentic and so at her service, her technical skills so highly developed, the pacing and structure so skillful, her persona so honest and appealing, the memoir is a joy to read.  It’s also a great model for memoir writers in how it weaves the forward action story with relevant, resonant passages of back story that give weight and meaning to that forward action.

It was four years after her mother’s death that Cheryl hiked the PCT.  The idea had come to her almost randomly, it seemed, in the midst of her own downward spiral, into sex and heroin.  She describes her experience with heroin:

“It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found an actual planet that I didn’t know had been there all along. Planet Heroin. The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldn’t manage to stay married to the man I loved.

“At least that’s how it felt while I was high.

“In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand. In the morning there weren’t only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit.”

It is in the midst of this crack-up that she decides she has to walk the PCT alone. On the hike she understands the connection: Continue reading “WILD: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — a Wonderful Memoir!”