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Jottings

What to Tell and What Not To Tell?

As leaves blow off branches in New England to expose views of brooks that are normally hidden, my mind returns to the fine line for an author between remembering and revealing, as I work on my memoir about the writing life, Word for Word.

 

After my earlier gardening memoir was published, a radio interviewer asked if I had any regrets about writing so personally, and I found myself saying no, I had none. Reviewers hadn't criticized what I had revealed about myself, and readers told me that the personal revelations were what they liked best about the book.

 

In that book, Four Tenths of an Acre, I used no names of living people, only identifying them by their roles in my life. In my memoir-in-progress, it is impossible not to name people, so I have changed names, hoping that real persons will not be identifiable.

 

When to cross the line and reveal details about intimates remains a question for every author writing in the first person. There are few rules, aside from legal ones. I try to temper honesty with kindness and bad memories with mature insights. What stays in the manuscript are truths essential to tell but not without apprehension and with trust in my readers.

 

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The Female Gaze

One of the books I often return to is a slim volume full of important thoughts, Writing a Woman's Lifeby the late English professor Carolyn Heilbrun.

 

It's about women who have written about their own lives--literally as memoir or autobiography, imaginatively as fiction, indirectly via biography, or secretly under pseudonyms. Many have only written honestly about themselves in letters or in their private journals.

 

Professor Heilbrun, a wife and mother, wrote detective novels under a pseudonym about an alter ego who was unmarried, childless, rich, beautiful, and free, "a figure out of never-never land," she admitted when looking back.

 

When writing about Georgia O'Keeffe many years ago, it was as if I was writing about whom I wished to be. A sideways treatment of a life happens because we are often afraid to write openly about our anger or ambition. Even famous women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir have described their successes as if they happened by chance instead of through their own determination and drive.

 

Why do I keep returning to Heilbrun's little book, first published by W. W. Norton in 1988? After writing biographies and beginning to publish in the first person, I found it inspiring to read about others who had written truthfully about what they had experienced and what they believed, the way I was trying to do in my books about childlessness, gardening, and in my forthcoming memoir about the writing life.

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Roth's Facts v. Roth's Fantasies

When Philip Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography was published two decades ago, I immediately bought it. While I liked many of his novels, as a writer of nonfiction I also yearned for some veracity from him. His imaginings could be head spinning--he even wrote a work of fiction with a protagonist named Philip Roth!--so I yearned for some truthfulness.

Roth lived in a nearby village in northwestern Connecticut, and I sometimes sighted him doing errands or at classical music concerts. He radiated intensity, whether looking in my direction or at musicians on stage. Something about his fierce dark glance made me keep my distance.

Recently I reread The Facts again while working on my own memoir. What did it tell me? The book that called itself an unconventional autobiography told me I could uninhibitedly TELL as well as show, two writerly tasks. In its way of playing with mirrors, it encouraged me to imagine and interpret and play around with structure while sticking to the facts.

It was also when I read Claudia Roth Pierpont's fascinating biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, again drawn to reality. At a book event I had the chance to ask Roth a question from a safe distance when she called him on a speaker phone. Recently, as he reached the age of eighty, he had said he was not going to write any more books, which had shocked me. I thought that writers never retire.

"Why have you stopped writing?" I asked him.

"Well, I'm not going to get any better," he said. It was a reply that brought me face to face with the fact of mortality, and the realization that even a writer as driven as Roth would one day have to stop. And now he is gone, but his fantasies and facts will live on.  Read More 
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What's More Truthful: Fact or Fiction?

What's interesting about Richard Ford's recent memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, is the way he makes the reader aware of the unreliability of memory--his memory, that is, but also any nonfiction writer's memory.

Many times as he describes an event, he almost stops in mid-sentence to confess that he didn't entirely comprehend what was going on around him as a child. "And for me, how was it?" he asks in one way or another throughout the memoir.

In fact, a novelist's imagination can be regarded as more truthful than a memoirist's memory, as Cheryl Strayed has pointed out in a review of his book.

Reading Ford's book has made me grateful to have many journals to rely on for my memoir. Still, even though the entries were written at the time events happened, I always have to remind myself that my interpretations of them are only my own. Also, from time to time I have to re-read passages in my journals to make sure my re-writing and editing of the manuscript has not affected a passage's original meaning.

I wonder if Ford will attempt nonfiction again, or if I will ever fall with relief into fiction?  Read More 
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Is Writing a Memoir Bad or Good for Your Head?

A few months ago, I listened to a group of memoirists talking about, well, memoir during a panel discussion in New York. It was full of surprises, but what startled me the most was their answer to the last question asked my moderator Gail Lumet Buckley, a memoirist herself.

Did you find writing a memoir cathartic? Each one of the panelists--Bill Hayes, Sheila Kohler, and Daphne Merkin--said it was not.

This alarmed me since I am working on a memoir in the understanding that dredging up the past, thinking about it, then ordering it into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs will continue to be a clarifying and finally a liberating experience.

Certainly other memoirists say so. Writing a memoir can be "restorative, compensatory in the deepest way," writes Sven Birkerts in his fascinating The Art of Time in Memoir. Witnessing "the self's encounter with its assumptions and illusions, the private reckoning given literary form, is one of the deep rewards of writing memoir."

None of the panelists explained their answer but, I suppose, remembering can sometimes be more upsetting than settling. Whether I ultimately agree with them or not, I believe that writing a memoir can be what Birkerts calls "an act of self-completion," if not one of equanimity.  Read More 
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Memoir: Discovering an Important Insight

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick's wise and thoughtful meditation about her teaching of nonfiction--mostly in the form of essays and memoirs--she states that nothing is more vital in memoir than the power of an important insight.

Then "the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer's organizing principle. That principal at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament," she writes.

So how do we memoirists discover and develop our most revealing insights? I have found that, like other aspects of writing, it's a matter of patiently using our memories and refining our manuscripts until core revelations make themselves known.

As I work away on my memoir, I have come to understand that my drive has been to return to an early sense of paradise, not unlike the one I have found again as an earthly pleasure in my garden. And also experience as I enjoy a pot of red cyclamen on my desk on a December day.  Read More 
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Returning and Remembering


Recently turning again to the beginning of my memoir, the part called "Providence," I felt a compulsion to return for a few days to the place I was born and grew up. It felt necessary once more to walk the city's old streets and to see its historic buildings. I had to be a girl reporter again, and gather more details about the place of my girlhood, in my desire to delve deeper and deeper into the past.

When I worked for The Providence Journal after college, the small New England city was struggling to get on its feet. Now there is a new vibrancy as department stores have become artists' lofts, and a bank building has turned into an art library and a dormitory for artists-to-be studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Much is different, but the essence of Providence is the same. As I worked at the Providence Public Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society--located in the old library where I fell in love with children's books--I did discover more and remember much more.

Now that I've returned home, I'm ready to settle down and write.  Read More 
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Do We Really Think Through Our Mothers?

The big purple bearded iris have started their annual blooming in my backyard, the ones my mother gave me from her garden, and the same ones she dug from her own mother's garden. Their genesis reminds me of Virginia Woolf's words in A Room of One's Own about thinking back through our mothers if we are women.

My mother, Adeline, was disinclined to give advice, and I got little or none from my three Rhode Island grandmothers, Helen and Persis, and my step-grandmother, Caroline. What did my mother's mother, Persis, learn from her New Hampshire mother? I looked up in a family history the given name of this great-grandmother, whom I had only seen in old black-and-white photographs, and was reminded it was Mary Emelina.

Searching for the names of female ancestors tells me how few of their words of wisdom are passed down from generation to generation. Although we are stamped with genetic memory, it is silent memory.

While working on a memoir, I still use the dictionary that Persis gave me at the age of ten. I re-read the few letters from Adeline and Helen that I managed to save, searching between the lines to learn what they knew. When we try to think back through our mothers, it is often a halting journey, but the blooming of the dark purple iris reminds me to try.  Read More 
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How A Writer Used her Guilt About Not Writing

Four Tenths of an Acre is a book I wrote out of, well, guilt. After moving from the city to the country, I spent many afternoons gardening in the yard behind my house instead of working on the biography I was supposed to be writing.

This gardening memoir grew, ironically, out of all those afternoons of not writing.

It was a time when I saw everything through a gardener's green glasses. As I taught myself how to grow perennials, I took detailed notes in one garden notebook after another about planting, weeding, deadheading, watering, and all the rest. Before long I had filled many notebooks, and I realized I had the makings of a book.

I am gratified that more than 700 readers tossed their hats into the ring for a chance to win a copy of the book during the recent Goodreads Giveaway, and I've been busy during the past few weeks sending books out to the two dozen winners.  Read More 
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Memoir or Fiction? Carol Ascher Answers

Carol Ascher, my friend and neighbor in Sharon, Connecticut, has written in the genres of fiction and memoir, and she answers my questions about the differences between them.

You've written a memoir about your father and two novels with a father figure? Why did you use non-fiction and fiction when writing about this topic?

My father was so important to who I am as an intellectual, aesthetic, and political individual, and since our relationship ended in a violent break shortly before he died, I've written about him three times.

The first time was in The Flood, about a ten-year-old girl in a refugee family in Kansas in 1951, an "autobiographical novel,"  Read More 
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