The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…
Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)
Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.
This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. (more…)
In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, she writes:
The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.
The world—the context within which the author’s life plays out—must show up in our story as well, and this inclusion requires memoirists to “move toward wisdom”, or, as I would put it, draw connections between one’s private life and the human experience. The connections are both inherent in the lived experience as well as created in the writing experience. Gornick goes on to say:
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved…when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
…When Rousseau observes, “I have nothing but myself to write about, and this self that I have, I hardly know of what it consists,” he is saying to the reader, “I will go in search of it in your presence. I will set down on the page a tale of experience just as I think it occurred, and together we’ll see what it exemplifies, both of us discovering as I write this self I am in search of.” And that was the beginning of memoir as we know it.
So the very movement through the self to some mystery lurking beyond is key to good literature. “Autobiography is the most fascinating thing you can do because you get to touch the human condition,” writes Jim Dine. “And in the end, what else is there? To me, it’s the ultimate affirmation of life, and a miracle of this transient, extremely fragile organism. To celebrate that, I think, is a noble thing to do.” This touching of the human condition is the opposite of the naval-gazing beginning memoirist fear; it is a profoundly contemplative, creative, and connective act. When we peer through the details of our lives to address basic human questions—who am I? what gives my life meaning?—we engage in myth-making, that fundamental act of explaining the universe.
Conversely, when we bypass the self (out of embarrassment, humility, disinterest, or concern for the reader) hoping to arrive more quickly at some nugget of wisdom, we deny our readers the journey—and the journey is what readers most want. Sure, we’re curious about what lessons you’ve learned from your breast cancer, your recovery from addiction, your climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. But we’re more interested in how you learned these lessons, because in reading your story, we might learn them as well.
Once again, this isn’t just a literary trick to please the reader. Genuine insights and revelations emerge when we include ourselves, so the experience of writing is more exciting—and scary. The more we show up in our stories, the more we have at stake. By this I mean that our investment is greater; we care more deeply about the questions our writing asks and the discoveries the process discloses. Our work becomes less about posturing and more about the ongoing formation of self, which never exists in isolation.
In story-telling, the personal doesn’t sit at one end of a see-saw across from the universal. Rather, the see-saw bends in a surprising circle. The more heart we put into our stories, the closer we come to the heart of the matter.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
If we show up in our stories as a character, our memoirs are stronger. Why? A reader entering a story needs shoes to walk around in and a pair of lenses to see through. We are embodied creatures. Even in the two-dimensional world of language, we need bodies or, at the very least, personality. Every reader of creative nonfiction is aware of the author lurking behind the story and brings to reading the expectation that the author will appear, either as character or narrator. Graham Swift wrote this about his fiction: “I favor the first person. One reason I do so is that I do not want simply to tell, out of the blue, a story. I want to show the pressure and need for its telling—I am as interested in the narrator as in the narrative. I want to explore the urgency of the relation between the two.”
Swift’s words are doubly true for memoir. Readers may be interested in the story’s plot, but they’re equally (and often more) interested in why the author’s telling this story, how he or she feels about it today, and what meaning it holds. Likewise, as Swift implies, “the pressure and need” for the story’s telling proves to be exciting territory for a writer. So much of the mystery of our material resides not in what happened but in what we make of what happened.
One of the reasons beginning writers don’t show up in their own stories is that they feel self-conscious about placing themselves in the limelight. Who wants to read about “me-me-me?” As Alice McDermott writes, “the sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down a page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” (Carol Bly’s response: “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!—but don’t keep the self-centered language.”) This brings me to my point: While all creative nonfiction includes the self, the best writing uses the self as a conduit to some other purpose. When those first person pronouns are the object of a story (or sentence), the result is naval gazing: “Look at me!” When they are the subject, they act as windows onto a wider world: “I saw the northern lights.” The self conveys the reader outward. “The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness,” Patricia Hampl said in an interview. “Memoirists use the self as a tool.”
Remember that old tidbit of writing class wisdom, “Write what you know”? We each have a wealth of memories to draw from; we each have the capacity to revisit a memory until it’s fleshed out with details; and every memory has an emotional stake (why else do we remember?) that points beyond the details to some truth about what it means to be human. The self isn’t just any tool; it’s our best tool. Don’t be afraid to use it.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew