September 2011 Archives
No mere human could sum up everything valuable Kristen said, but here are my favorite nuggets.
"The easiest way to lose your readers is to tell them what to think." This, re: characterization, i.e., don't vilify people in your memoir. Let the story unfold. Tell a balanced, complex story, and let readers discover it for themselves.
"Anyone can have something great or terrible happen to them. What makes a memoir is the writing."
"I like things that fill a void, topically or stylistically."
Kristen identified two key trends she's seeing (and liking) in memoir now: short, linked, non-chronological pieces that work together as a book, and the tendency to turn the authorial I/eye outward to engage the world. She also suggested that large trade publishers may be pressed to seek and highlight plot and sensationalism when it comes to memoir, whereas university presses (less driven by the bottom line) have more freedom to focus on manuscripts the defining feature of which is literary quality.
Great evening, with lots of great questions from the graduate students.
And writers Jon Pineda, Patrick Madden, Barrie Jean Borich, Robert Vivian, Nancy K. Miller, Lisa Catherine Harper, Tracy Seeley, and Mary Clearman Blew, your ears must be pleasantly burnt by now, because Kristen couldn't say enough good things about your work and about working with you.
(I'm not sure that's my own favorite opening line by Hammett. What's yours?)The best pulp-fiction writers hone beginnings and endings to their sharpest edge. Surprise and wit, among other things, are in their arsenal. Here are some examples of gripping first sentences: "I am going to kill a man" (Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die); "They threw me off the hay truck about noon" (James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice); "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte" (Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest); "Well, sir, I should have been sitting pretty, just about as pretty as a man could sit" (Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280); "Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit" (Raymond Chandler, Trouble is My Business).
Bell's an experienced editor who writes clearly and concisely about the best editing strategies she's discovered and developed over her years in publishing, and The Artful Edit shares her terrific advice with writers of all genres who are serious about improving their work. I've praised it here on the blog before, and I'm happy to be teaching it in my graduate workshop tomorrow night.
This year in my graduate memoir workshop, I taught her stunning essay "Cartographies of Change." Published in Prairie Schooner, it's a gorgeous example of what creative nonfiction can be.
Tracy is the author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas, published in 2011. She teaches literature and creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco. There, she has held the NEH Chair in the Humanities and won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and the College Service Award. She currently co-directs the Center for Teaching Excellence.
She has also published scholarly essays on Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, poet and essayist Alice Meynell, and other writers, as well as literary essays in The Florida Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her essay "Cartographies of Change" was a finalist for both the Iowa Review and Brenda Ueland prizes in nonfiction.
Tracy lives in Oakland, California with her husband Frederick Marx, a filmmaker. She is an avid if novice gardener and has raised two smart and darkly witty daughters who now live too far away.
Once my graduate students had read "Cartographies of Change," which weaves together the losses of breast cancer and a relationship's end with the story of the narrator's budding meditation practice, Tracy was kind enough to do a Q&A with them about the essay.
Gabriel Houck: "This essay was linguistically gorgeous, but its organization--specifically, the shaping of how you talk about coping with trauma--Is what makes it work so well for me. My question has to do with my own struggles organizing in this way, more specifically: was the idea of cartography (or the metaphor of mapping and all of its connected lexicon) present at the onset of the writing? Was it something that developed as an organizing principle during the writing process, or was it something that was inserted afterwards, upon reflection, as a way of framing the language and the shape of this story? I think it is a beautiful choice and it's done tremendously well, but you have other things in the piece that seem as if they could have equally taken the burden that 'cartography' takes on for you: the metaphor of cancer-treatment-as-warfare, the idea of meditation and being outside of time, and the constant, mantra-like repetition of certain refrains. Mostly, I guess the question is about organizing things (at what point the shape and the frame are clear to you), and the prioritizing of the ideas at work (choosing to use cartography in the title, in analogies and language, as a dominant refrain vs. some of the other ideas you present in the essay)."
Tracy Seeley: Great question! For me, this piece and the experience it grew out of are about relocation, displacement, and making a place for myself both literally and figuratively. So the idea of mapping—of finding one’s place, marking it, making it meaningful—seemed far more expansive to me than any other metaphor the essay might have made available. “Cartographies of Change” as a central metaphor also seems to me more suggestive, a bit more allusive and thus richer than some of the other choices might have been.I have to say that mapping, making a place, finding a place, creating a home—they were all very much on my mind at the time, as I was also working on my book My Ruby Slippers, which is a memoir of place. And I’d done written about space in Virginia Woolf’s fiction and nonfiction. It’s a preoccupation of mine, a metaphor that works to explain a lot about me. Having said that, I didn’t actually hit on the idea of cartography as the organizing principle or the title for a long while into the drafting process. Early drafts were much more expository, straightforward storytelling. But I wasn’t happy with the tone or the feel of the essay. In some ways, I think I was still too close to the experience and the piece sounded sentimental. So I put it away for awhile, then one day I was reading Donne and came across the poem that acts as an epigraph. And I had that aha! moment. THAT’s what I was really trying to do…write about mapping and change. Donne uses the metaphor of body as map, so it’s a bit different than what I ended up doing. But I grabbed his metaphors, since they let me do exactly what I wanted to do. Some of the mapping language was already in the essay before I found the poem—so I’d been headed in that direction intuitively—and some of it made its way in as I rewrote and revised. Once I had the idea of Cartographies, it became easy to get the emotional lightness I wanted. Caitie Liebman: "Other characters, or players, in your life barely appear in this piece. They are, however, briefly mentioned: 'sisters . . . daughters . . . friends' (116). What do you think their brief mention does for the reader? Does the reader need to know those relations exist even though they are not described as players in your life throughout the diagnosis and treatment of your disease? Why did you choose not to acknowledge their roles (or absences)?"
Tracy Seeley: I never know what to say about “the reader,” who is really an imaginary, impossible to locate entity. Readers are multiple, all with different sensibilities and responses, so I don’t know what my inclusion of these other characters will do for any given reader. For me, this piece is about an inward journey, not a story of my relationships with others—so that’s part of what they’re doing (or not doing) in there. One of the realities of going through treatment for cancer is that no matter how many people may be around or who they are, there’s no way for anyone else to be inside that experience with the patient. By its very nature it’s deeply private. We confront our mortality alone. So in a very real way, as much as there were other people in my life, they were not on the inside and couldn’t be. It seemed quite natural to me that they should be mentioned, since I continued to occupy a larger world of relationships, but those people are also very much on the margins in terms of what my experience was during those months. Cancer is an intense, surreal place. You go there by yourself. Nicole Green: "Writing memoir, how do you think about organization? Do you begin by imagining a structure you'd like the piece to take, or do you just tell your story first, and allow the organization/structure to emerge more organically through revision? When you start, what is your process? How do you imagine a piece at its very first conception?"
Tracy Seeley: When I start something new I don’t think in terms of structure at all. I just jump into the soup. I usually have an image in mind, or a narrative moment that seems somehow important—and usually I don’t know why it’s important until I start writing about it. I’m a very messy writer, and have learned to live with a lot of chaos, lots of extraneous material, lots of disorderly bits and pieces. In the early stages of something, I’m just trying to generate a lot of material. But I’ve learned that eventually, the shape, purpose, focus and even subject of the piece will emerge. I will announce itself. That is, I’ll get an understanding of what it’s really about. Once I know that, I can think more clearly about how to organize it. Some of my organizational decisions are very conscious and analytical, and some are just intuitive. You know as a writer when something works, even though you might be hard pressed to explain why. Wendy Oleson: "Were there drafts of this essay in which you speak more about the sister you woke up by 'rubbing [your head] on her cheek' or the daughter whose 'hand-tinted photographs' you admired from the couch? (113, 115)"
Tracy Seeley: No. Kathryn Samuelson: "I love the line, 'To be present, in the present, is to swim in infinity.' Is this a learned response to life that you intend readers to apply?"
Tracy Seeley: Thank you. I don’t think of my writing as a set of directives for other people. All I hope for is that they’ll have a reading experience that rearranges something inside them. It’s not up to me to say what they should do with it. Vanessa Languis: "At the very end, was it an out-of-body experience that the author was experiencing? Did the author/narrator die momentarily? Or was that another metaphor?"
Tracy Seeley: The section I think you mean begins this way:
Sometimes on the threshold of darkness, I would forget the lessons of the meditation cushion. I too easily slipped into darkness, let it slip into me. Awake and still, I breathed the darkness in and set it loose to explore my interior rooms, long shadows trailing in its wake. I let it lead me through corridors of regret and desire, where darkness, impresario, opened the curtains on a host of dramatic restagings—quarrels and partings, the man and the woman, moments of failure and fear.In the first sentence, “darkness” is literal. It’s evening. In the second sentence “I too easily slipped into darkness,” darkness is becoming metaphorical, referring to a mood of sadness, but the phrase “slipped into” opened up the door (so to speak) for me to make that darkness a physical space, like a house, as well as a presence in that house. So darkness becomes both spatialized and personified. And then I just ran with the metaphor and created a scene in which I am in those rooms, following darkness around, replaying scenes from the past, confronting my feared version of a future, etc. And then, eventually, I manage to I pull myself out of that wandering back to the present. Here’s what it’s about. Think of what our minds are often prone to do: we may be sitting in a café, thinking about the past, mulling over regrets, imaginatively replaying scenes that went badly, rehearsing things we wished we’d said. Or out of fear, we spin out a whole scenario of what bad thing is going to happen in the future if we do X, or don’t do Y. That’s what I’m allowing myself to do when I “slip into darkness, let it slip into me.” I take the metaphors and make them literal. I stole that technique from the transformation scene in Woolf’s Orlando by the way. Check it out. The minute I end that internal dark wandering, I reflect that this is how we create our own suffering: dwelling in the past, wishing things had been different, or fearing the future we imagine will come. It’s part of Buddhist teaching to understand our suffering this way. We create it ourselves. And we can end our own suffering by accepting things as they are and by living in the present. That’s what that section of the essay’s about: a moment when I create my own suffering by “slipping into” the darkness of my own thoughts…and then I’m aware enough of what I’m doing to stop it, to “wake up” to the present. That’s when the light goes on in the essay, by the way. The end of suffering is enlightenment.
"Is The Help Helping? A Roundtable Discussion on Race, Gender, and History as Fiction," with
It will take place on Wednesday, September 14, 3:30-5:00 p.m. in the Bailey Library, on the second floor of Andrews Hall, City Campus, UNL.Prof. Anna Williams Shavers, Cline Williams Professor of Citizenship Law, UNL Law College
Dr. Kwakiutl Dreher, Ethnic Studies & English, UNL
Dr. Jeannette Eileen Jones, Ethnic Studies & History, UNL
Dr. Patrick Jones, Ethnic Studies & History, UNL.
I'm really excited. I can't wait to see what they say.
[It's my pleasure to present guest blogger Emily Levine, scholar and friend. --JC]
One of the problems of The Help—and there are many—is that, contrary to the reality of black women’s lives in the south in the 1960s, the only physical violence against them that we see is perpetrated by one of the women’s husbands—a black man.
From the time of slavery, through reconstruction and Jim Crow, into the
civil rights movement, black women were subjected to violence, often sexual, at
the hands of white men. And if they weren’t directly assaulted themselves, they
lived under the constant threat of that violence. Anytime, anywhere. Sexual
humiliation, beatings, rapes, abductions were all part of the daily terror that
black women lived with. We do not see any of this in The Help, a book/film that purports to be about the lives of black
women during the civil rights movement, a movement that Danielle McGuire makes
clear in her recent book, At the Dark End
of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil
Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, was in large part
a product of and response to that very violence against women. (And just as the
wives of plantations owners were perfectly aware of what their husbands were
doing down in the quarters at night, the wives of men during the civil rights
movement knew what their husbands
were up to. Their silence was complicity.)
During the 1980s, I embarked on a concerted self-education about black women’s lives in America. My readings filled the silences left not only by mainstream American history, but the history of blacks and the civil rights movement in particular. They included Gerda Lerner’s Black Women in White America (1972, Lerner had been a member of the anti-Nazi resistance in Austria), books about Ida B. Wells and Mary McLeod Bethune, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987), All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Black Women's Studies (ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 1982). (I look forward to the publication this month of Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.)
At the Dark End of the Street is a welcome addition to that list. I saw McGuire give a lengthy presentation on Book TV (that’s CSPAN on the weekends when Congress isn’t in session) and am currently reading the book. As a historian, I’m impressed by McGuire’s research—her work in countless archives, newspapers of the era, and interviews with women who lived through that violence has unearthed stories, history, which had been lost.
McGuire opens the book with the story of Recy Taylor, who as a young married mother walking home from church in 1944 Alabama, was abducted at gunpoint and brutally raped by six white men. The investigator sent by the NAACP to document the case was a young activist named Rosa Parks, who McGuire makes clear—in case people still don’t get it—was not, ten years later, a tired woman on her way home from work wanting to rest her feet, but a seasoned civil rights worker acting as part of a planned resistance. A resistance not just against having to sit at the back of the bus, but against the daily humiliations and assaults black women were subjected to riding the Montgomery buses.
The Help gives the impression the
most black women had to put up with—bad as they were—were indignities like
having to use separate toilets. While no trifling matters, these sorts of
things just don’t reflect terror that these women lived with. The Help also gives the impression that
these women were just too afraid to speak out about the humiliations they faced
working as domestics and that they needed Skeeter to prod them. On the
contrary, in the face of beatings, attacks on their homes, the inability to
protect their daughters, and the knowledge that justice might never come to
their attackers, black women did
speak out. Publicly. Individually and as part of actions by organizations like
the NAACP and women’s clubs. Their bravery was stunning.
We owe it to these women to acknowledge their stories, their lives. The Help doesn’t help. While it is good at portraying heartbreaking daily moments of life as a domestic in white homes during the 1960s, it doesn’t begin to show black women as the strong, active, political fighters and organizers that they were. As an antidote, I encourage you to read At the Dark End of the Street. I have always felt that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, to know the history. The history that McGuire gives us is chilling. It is not the feel-good self-righteous story of The Help. It is much more powerful.
Just read the preface; it’s more of a page turner than Skeeter, and Minnie, and Abilene. McGuire writes:
. . .yet analysis of rape and sexualized violence play little or no role in most histories of the civil rights movement, which present it as a struggle between black and white men—the heroic leadership of Martin Luther King confronting intransigent white supremacists like ‘Bull’ Connor. The real story—that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African American women’s long struggle against sexual violence—has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African American’s daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement.
Emily Levine is the editor of With My Own Eyes: A Lakota Woman Tells Her People's History (U of Nebraska).