Windows onto a Wider World

The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness.  Memoirists use the self as a tool.            –Patricia Hampl

Perhaps because I’m entering my twenty-third year of teaching writing, I’m getting curmudgeonly about memoir.  I still revere fine examples in the genre, but the vast majority of memoir seems myopic and disengaged.  Published works irritate me the most; I read a memoir like Sheryl Strayed’s Wild and run screaming back to the classics to recover.  Memoirs-in-process at least contain the possibility of improving.

The amateur writers I work with fear that memoir is selfish, but this isn’t my gripe.  “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!” writes Carol Bly.  The self is a wonderfully worthy subject.  Perhaps what grates on me is a distinctly American understanding of the self, obsessed with personal pain and disturbingly isolated.  I am interested in the self defined by and defining its surrounding community; the self as a pawn of and player in history; the self in dialogue with others—neighbors and readers and those long dead and those yet to be born; the self as an inhabitant of the natural world; the self as a window onto our shared humanity and our extraordinary differences.  We are each so broken and insignificant, and yet also magnificent.  I’m interested in the paradoxes and revelations of the self.

Memoir works best when the self becomes a lens—a consciousness, as Hampl calls it, especially consciousness of material beyond the self.  Another way to say this is that memoir succeeds when it shows the self in relationship to some subject, aware of this relationship, and exploring the relationship with curiosity and acumen.

As a culture we desperately need literature that connects our small lives to larger stories of struggle and meaning.  I’m beginning to believe that writers have a moral responsibility not just to craft good stories but to create stories that build connections between people rather than breaking them down.  On second thought, morality has nothing to do with it.  The stories that build connections are simply better stories.

Write–Or Be Written.

This past weekend my sister married the man she loves in a sunny meadow.  Because this was her second marriage, she had resisted it mightily—“marriage” is a story the culture imposes on couples, and it doesn’t necessarily work.  You have to understand—Marcy is a woman who, on her own, adopted two boys from Guatemala; she started a community farm and has midwifed countless babies into the world.  Her performance artist sweetie moved in two years ago; the boys already call him Dad.  Why bother with marriage?

Eventually Marcy conceded that a wedding would give them a communal and sacred blessing.  The couple created a “family union” ceremony with their Lakotan spiritual leader that involved the guests hiking across a canyon, drumming, washing in a stream, and making vows to one another and the boys.  The guests cried and danced.

What made my sister’s wedding powerful?  It was faithful to tradition and it arose from the particulars of her family’s story.  She and her partner stayed true to their tradition’s form of a wedding but recreated it to reflect their personalities, their history, their community, their needs.  This union resulted from years of hard work.

It reminded me, strangely enough, of writing a book.

“Write or be written,” the author Elissa Raffa signs her books.  “If we refuse to do the work of creating this personal version of the past,” Patricia Hampl writes of memoir, “someone else will do it for us.”  When I think of all the thoughtless, formulaic weddings I’ve attended—ceremonies that follow prescriptions of tradition or culture, which provide a shallow form for the couple to conform to—I realize the transformative power of creating from the inside out.  Form plays an important role, but we must fill form intentionally, with the essence of our being.  In this way we become authors—of our lives and of our creations.

Because my circle of friends is comprised almost entirely of people working for social change—advocating for the environment, promoting rights for GLBT folks, strengthening communities, finding nonviolent solutions to conflicts—I sometimes question the value of my work as a writer and writing teacher.  Given the pressing needs of our times, why do I help writers dedicate years to crafting their personal stories?  But moments like my sister’s wedding remind me that the most powerful forces in our world are clear and honest hearts, and real change in our culture, as in our relationships, always begins with genuine stories.  When we tell our own version of our story with great integrity, we step out into society hand-in-hand with our essential truth.  And that’s when the tears and dancing begin.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Dismissing, Then Welcoming the Audience

You must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants.  Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.

When I came upon these words in Strunk and White’s classic writing handbook, Elements of Style, I felt pleased as punch.  For years I’ve tried to convince writing students to surround themselves with a safe, protective bubble as they draft projects and begin revising.  We all know how concern for our audience can loom over our shoulders, pestering us with questions like “What will your mother think?” and “Who will give a rat’s ass about that?” and judging our language or ideas as inadequate.  As soon as we allow that dreaded entity, “the reader,” into our writing room, we begin censoring and performing.  We deny our brilliant but quirky inner voice the freedom to emerge.

“A careful first draft is a failed first draft,” Patricia Hampl writes.  What happens if you give yourself permission in a first draft to be messy, heretical, revolutionary, stupid, and otherwise embarrassing?  Your inclination may be to approach your second draft like Stephen King does: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”  And while I agree in principle, I’ve found that even the initial stages of revision benefit from a general disregard of audience.  How else can we ask the probing questions that will churn up more risky material?  How else will we feel safe enough to identify that pulsing heartbeat?  Often our real motivations for writing emerge after our material is on the page, and we need the freedom to be honest with ourselves without concern for our readers’ pleasure.

As every writer knows, it takes real will-power to set the future reader aside and “play to an audience of one.”  Whether at the beginning of a project or well into revision, this practice is about peeling away layers of deception to arrive at a core reality—one that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comforted, as Mark Twain is reported to have said.  Our work needs us to be fully present, not distracted by what others will think.  This is what gives the process of writing the quality of serious spiritual listening, and what invites us into our better selves.

The corollary to this intense privacy is equally valuable–for writing to flourish we must at some point welcome the audience.  If a writer only considers the self the primary audience, the work becomes solipsistic and sloppy.  Our own minds, however bright, are only so big; our own lives, however expansive, are inevitably limited.  When we write solely for ourselves, as we do in a private journal, we human beings have a propensity to navel-gaze and obsess.  Unedited journals almost never get published for this reason; there’s simply too much shlock for most readers.

If we never consider an audience as we write, our work’s growth remains stunted.  The discipline of considering the reader is absolutely necessary to the development of creative work.  All art is essentially dialogue—between the artist and the viewer, between the artist and all artists who have come before, and between the artist and society.  The artist’s awareness of this conversation is what launches a work from the private realm into the public.  In literature, it’s this awareness that helps a writer identify the universal elements in the particulars of his or her narrative.  By setting our work in the context of history, social movements, religious thought, psychological explorations, and other external forces, we link the smallness of our memories (or imagined world) to that web of commonality that connects us as humans.  We remove ourselves from isolation and participate in community.

I believe the best time to welcome the audience into our writing process is after the first or second draft, after we’ve searched for the heart of our work and risked exposing some truth.  Gradually, as we move through the drafts, we can begin to ask questions that might open our story to external readers:  Have I introduced my characters, my setting, my questions thoroughly?  Why might an anonymous reader be interested in this work?  How might I capture his or her attention and raise the stakes?  How might I make my experience (or my character’s experience) available to the reader, so he or she is a participant rather than an observer?  What in my story touches the human experience, that cord of connection we all share?

Every spiritual journey worth its salt brings the journeyer back into community, where the fruits of solitude can provide nourishment beyond the bounds of one individual life.  Likewise with creative practice; what’s born in privacy gains texture and merit by moving into the public realm.  The craft of writing well is really a rigorous discipline through which we open our internal world to another, or to the Other.  This, I believe, is essentially what revision is about—seeing our material again and again, with eyes other than our own or with sight broadened by the wider world.                        –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Language that Shows

When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”

But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:

When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.

Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew