tell it slant

Wolfy posted a comment asking how a person goes about writing a memoir, if the process is similar to the writing of fiction. The question can really be extended to any kind of creative nonfiction, a term you may not be familiar with. I’ll cut to the chase: if you write about something real (WWI, dog breeding, airline safety, Winston Churchhill) that has no personal connection for you, that’s plain old nonfiction. It can certainly be creative nonfiction, which means that the author has taken pains with content and style so that the reader is drawn in. A newspaper article may read

A two story flat burned down last night after an electrical short ignited a stack of papers in the cellar. There were minor injuries to three persons, including one firefighter, who were treated at County Hospital and released. The owner of the building could not be reached for comment.

Or, somebody may decide that the story is bigger and give it full investigative journalism treatment, in which case it will become creative nonfiction. If the journalist knows what s/he’s doing.

A sixth grade book report is nonfiction about fiction. So is a review in the New York Times.

I read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a genre I really love, for the care and thought that goes into sharing esoteric knowledge or stories that otherwise go unremarked.

[asa book]0375760393[/asa] A title that jumps to mind is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire — which is where I got the idea for the Wilde’s apple orchards). Here’s the PW review:

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan’s fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Memoir is a very different undertaking. You are contemplating your own being and history. You feel your way along as you write. There’s very little invention here — unless you happen to be the putz who wrote the fake memoir that Oprah bought into — but a great deal of room for style and presentation. The process is so very different from fiction writing that it’s hard to even compare the two, at least for me.

And now I contradict myself: there is, of course, no such thing as a factual memoir. Everything is reshaped by memory. Goethe called his autobiography Wahrheit und Dichtung (truth and imagination, for a loose but colloquial translation) . Because the two are indistinguishable from each other. [asa book]1206577296[/asa]

My friend Suz wrote a memoir called Body Toxic, a truly masterful piece of work that is a hybrid — memoir, yes, but also a look at environmental mayhem in her native New Jersey from various angles. The research is there, and so are the personal memories and the re-imaginings. Terrifically difficult to pull off, but she did. Body Toxic evokes tremendous reactions from people who read it, especially people from New Jersey. Such emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. The anger some readers pointed at her as the author makes it clear that her memoir tapped into a greater consciousness and a great deal of conflict and pain.

If you’re writing a history of gardening in Japan, you may love your subject but still approach it with some degree of objectivity. It’s next to impossible to be truly objective about your own history.

Writing about my own history is something I’ve been trying to do for all my adult life. If I’m writing fiction I may ask myself: what does this character want right now, and why? But when I think about writing memoir the questions are more complex and far harder.

What was she thinking? What did she want that she never got, and why?

[asa book]0072512784[/asa] Tell it Slant is (a) from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and (b) the title of a book also written by Suz and Brenda Miller, a colleague. ((Suzanne writes her creative nonfiction under a penname, you may have noticed.)) The book was designed for students of creative nonfiction, and attempts to demonstrate the idea of Dickinson’s poem: you can’t run at the truth head-on. If you approach it at the right angle, your story will not only be told, but heard.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–


This entry is part 4 of 19 in the series Memoir

After I wrote about my grandmother and the sewing basket, it occurred to me that I had never told anyone that story. Not the Mathematician, not a therapist, nobody. Which means I am the only person who could tell it, because my parents and my grandmother are dead. Does this make it somehow worthy of telling? Ah yes, I’m looking for a way out.

Maybe I should tell you something neutral. Something not-so-awful. Thus my query to the keeper of memories, my subconscious: do I have to start with the really, really bad stuff?

It’s odd the way the subconscious seems to make decisions behind the scenes and then suddenly, without any apparent warning, opens a door and shoves something into the forefront. Because after I asked this question, I got a flash memory of my first communion dress.

Anybody who grows up Catholic — especially those who go to Catholic school — knows what a big deal the first communion is. For the kids there’s a whole week of preparation (or at least there was when I was seven) — including first confession, after which the sisters threw us a party with cake and icecream to celebrate our newly scrubbed and squeaky clean souls. And then the first communion itself. After that there’s supposed to be another party, this one at home. Hosted by your family.

I lived in fear of people coming to our door, people I knew, who would see all. But in this case, I didn’t have to worry much, because it would only be family, who were well aware of my mother’s habits. But there was still the matter of the dress.

Second grade girls like to play bride, and here was an opportunity to dress up in white, and make everybody watch. I was a kid who hid in the corner for the most part, so that had no appeal to me. I’d walk up the aisle in my white dress, because it was expected of me. The issue of how I’d get the dress was more complicated. I could ask my older sister, who had a couple years as a novitiate under her belt, but no money. My father wasn’t cheap with us, but the idea of him going shopping for a fancy dress, that was almost funny.

Chicago, 1963In this period of my life I have very few concrete memories of my mother, but my first communion dress outing is one of them. The day before the ceremony she emerged from the bedroom wearing makeup and heels, her hair a perfect helmet and announced we were going shopping. This is the only time I ever shopped with my mother, as far as I remember, and it was an experience so odd that I dreamed about it for years.

We ended up in a small storefront on Lincoln Avenue which seemed to be filled with round racks of nothing but communion dresses. One of those opportunistic shops that come up like mushrooms and fade away again.  There were maybe six mothers in that store with kids in tow but for some reason I remember the noise most of all: the squeak of the hangers as they were pushed back and forth, and the Lincoln Avenue traffic. — it was May and the door was propped open. But I don’t remember any conversation at all.

My mother started riffling through the dresses  with ruthless efficiency, her scarlet red lips pursed as she turned over labels and examined hems. Then she pulled out a dress and announced it to be The One.

What I remember about it is this: it cost thirty-five dollars, an amount that shocked and frightened me. I knew more about household finances than most seven year olds. I knew, for instance, that we paid a hundred dollars a month rent on the three bedroom flat above Byron’s Photography Studio (just around the corner from the first apartment, on Larchmont). I knew that the telephone bill came to about eight dollars a month. And here was my mother, spending thirty five dollars on a dress made in Italy, satin and lace, that I would wear only once.

It made no sense to me then, but as an adult I finally figured it out. My cousin Mary, the eldest daughter of my mother’s sister, said something that made it all fall into place.

“You know we thought you were rich,” she said. “You were always dressed like little princesses. Drove my mother nuts.”

Aunt Nancy had six kids, a rocky marriage, and a drinking habit somewhat less destructive than my mother’s.  She also had a deep and abiding hatred for her sister.  Sibling rivalry is not the right word for what went on between them. My mother was the elder, prettier of the two, and she tortured her sister for all their childhoods.  I understand aunt Nancy’s anger toward my mother because we experienced her in much the same way.  And there’s also the simple fact that Nancy, despite some very rough times, despite her dependence on alcohol, remained generous and loving, even toward the daughters of her despised sister.

My first communion was another way for my mother to sneer at her sister and twist the knife, this time by means of imported lace and satin.  We were strictly working class and I imagine my father was not happy about the cost of that dress, but to my mother it was worth making him mad to see her sister’s face. My guess is that only another drink could get the taste of bile out of aunt Nancy’s mouth. 

But none of that made an impression on me. My six cousins were there, wild and unruly and truly thrilling, the perfect buffer. The adults sat together eating and drinking in the other room  where children were not welcome. We ran around the neighborhood until  Uncle Jim loaded us all into his car and took us off to the Lincoln Park Zoo. By the time we got home again, my mother was passed out in the bedroom.

Aunt Nancy has been gone about five years now, but I think about her quite often and with great affection. I wish I could have talked to her as an adult, one woman to another, about my mother.  I think the sister she knew and the mother I knew were actually the same person, something that happens very rarely.

sharp things

This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series Memoir

There is a green chair in the family room, a battered old upholstered thing where I sit most evenings sewing and watching television. Anybody who has ever been in this house knows not to sit in that chair. I tend to use the arms for a pincushion, you see, and needles tend to go wandering around in the upholstery, only to lunge up and make themselves known at odd moments. I regularly go on a needle hunt and extract what I find, but there are always a few in there. I get caught out now and then.

I’m here to talk about my mother, or to try to talk about my mother, so what’s with the furniture and the needles? I’ve got that same cautious feeling I get when I’m about to sit down in that chair. Trying to reconstruct the story of my childhood and more, to understand it, is asking to get stuck. A dozen memories that are neutral in most ways, and then wham, you’re standing there sucking a bleeding thumb.

So I’m going to approach this sideways, and start with my grandmother instead. My mother’s mother, born in 1900, sent to be raised by her grandparents when her own mother died; brought back home at about age five to be raised by her oldest sister, my Great Aunt Lillian, who kept house for all the kids and an alcoholic father.

My grandmother left Chicago and moved to California in the late fifties, so I saw her very rarely. In fact, I remember only one visit, but I do remember it clearly. Summer, the year I turned six. She came walking up Larchmont, stopped and then sat down next to me on the stoop. I didn’t know who she was and I wasn’t sure how to ask, but she was nice and she had something for me, a small sewing basket. We sat there for a while and she taught me how to thread a needle and do a basic running stitch. At some point she told me she was my grandmother.

Which changed everything, of course. I kept waiting for her to get up and go into the house, but she seemed content to sit there with me, something I couldn’t quite parse. I was left to my own devices in the summer, day in and day out. An adult who was spending time with me, who seemed to want to spend time with me, that was odd and maybe even a little unsettling.

In retrospect, I imagine that she was reluctant to go up to the apartment because she dreaded coming face to face with my mother, her oldest daughter. My mother’s alcoholism was so advanced at that point that nobody could pretend anymore. So we sat there, a six year old and a sixty-two year old, both of us thinking of the woman in the third floor apartment while we talked about needles and knotting thread..

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I could really imagine what that must have been like for her. She had come from California and now she had to walk up the three flights of stairs, open a door, and see for herself what her daughter had become. To look at the evidence, and not have any choice but to see it. Because my mother wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at six, I knew what was coming. My grandmother must have known too.

In the early afternoon my mother would be drunk enough to be combative. At that stage she would stand in the middle of the kitchen in her nightgown and sway as though she were being buffeted by a strong wind. The flesh around her eyes dark, almost bruised looking. She dyed her hair black, and it would have been standing up in tufts. A small woman, five foot, two inches tall — exactly as tall as her mother. As she talked — as she argued, she would poke the air in the direction of her mother’s face. She might have fallen. She might have laughed when her mother tried to help her up, or pushed her away.

All these years later I can finally understand what it must have been like for her to face the reality of her daughter’s life. The pain of that, the guilt, the bone-deep anger. The embarrassment.

Or maybe, just maybe my mother was sober that day. I try to see the two of them sitting at the kitchen table over coffee chatting about relatives, weather, the cost of a gallon of milk. I can try to imagine that, but it’s hard. If I can sell myself a quiet hour in the kitchen, the rattle of the fan, a stilted conversation about nothing at all, then there’s room to believe that my grandmother didn’t knowingly walk away from two little kids in a bad situation. Because she couldn’t stand to watch, or didn’t know how to help; because she had raised three kids and didn’t want to take on another two. Because she was feeling her age. Because she had grown up in an alcoholic household, and believed that adversity was good for small children. Because she just couldn’t face the truth.

She wasn’t in the house for very long. I was still sitting there on the stoop when she left and I was still sitting there when my father came home from work. That’s when I got up. I got up because when he walked up the stairs, I could walk behind him.

magical thinking

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Memoir

When I first started writing this weblog I didn’t think it would last long. I’d put down what advice I had for people trying to get started, and when that petered out, I’d stop. Things evolved, as they tend to do, and now this weblog in all its glorious messiness is the way I keep in touch with my readers. Or at least, the readers who are comfortable in front of a computer.

I’ve reviewed books and movies, written about pov and plot and dialog and editors and a hundred other things. I’ve answered questions. To promote my own stuff I’ve given away piles and piles o’ books, not all of them mine. I’ve commented about subjects raised on other weblogs. There have been a couple kerfuffles, but in the greater scheme of things, none of them have been of any real importance. I have made a lot of friends, and a couple non-friends, in the internet sense of such things.

Sometimes I have used this space to tell the family stories that I wanted to record for posterity. If you come here with any regularity you know about the Mathematician and the Girlchild, the puppyboys and the cats. You have heard some of my best stories about my father. I have written a little about my career as an academic, about linguistics, about teaching. Almost everything personal I’ve written about has been positive, upbeat, funny, with the clear exception of the topic of depression and anxiety disorders. Those I would categorize as public service announcements.

I have never written here — I have never written anywhere — about my childhood, and an observant reader will have noticed that I never mention my mother, who died when I was fourteen. There are a lot of reasons for that. The biggest reason is just habit. For the first ten years after my mother died, the idea of talking about her was impossible. Eventually, after a lot of time and therapy, I got to the point where I could recite a short-short narrative: My mother was an alcoholic, and she was abusive, and she committed suicide when I was fourteen.

Those three facts are the cornerstones of a much larger, more complex story. The mathematician knows most of it, but I’m not sure how much; there’s an odd thing that goes on when it comes to sharing this kind of information. It has to do with a bit of childhood magical thinking. Kids believe that their thoughts can be contagious, in a way. As a kid I was sure everybody around me, teachers, other kids, the clerk at the bakery, knew about what was going on in my house and about my mother. I just assumed they all knew and judged, and when she died and I found out that 98% of people had not known. Except then, of course, they all did.

For a long time my thinking went like this: no reason to mention my mother or my childhood. No reason to draw attention to myself. It will sound like a ploy for sympathy, or worse, it will come across as some kind of excuse for mistakes or failures. So I rarely told anyone, unless I was compelled to. All this was, as you may have guessed, pre-therapy.

When my father was dying I finally did go to therapy, and I was lucky to get a really good therapist. That’s where I started to unpack the fourteen years of luggage I was dragging around with me, and I began to see some patterns and underlying issues. I still wasn’t ready to talk to people about my mother except in the three-pronged way I mentioned above, and then only rarely. Then, at some point in my thirties I realized I had completely fallen back into the magical thinking. I assumed a good friend, somebody I had known for a couple years, did know about my early history. But the fact was, I had never told her, and she didn’t know. I was actually shocked to realize that this was true for quite a few people in my life.

A person who has a lot of facial scarring from a car accident knows what people see when they look at her. The fact that they never raise the subject doesn’t mean anything; of course they see the scars. Some part of my mind simply cannot absorb the idea that when people look at me or talk to me, there are no external scars for them to see. There is no outward physical sign of the years I spent with my mother.  I keep forgetting that something so elementally important and formative can be invisible.

I got past this stage in my forties after a lot more therapy. Since then I do talk about my mother sometimes, mostly to close friends, especially ones who had similar childhoods.

A final word: this isn’t earth shattering stuff. Worse happens every day all across the country and the world. Some of it may be upsetting, but for the most part you’ll have heard it all before. Just not my version, which is all this is meant to be.