Roz Chast: pictures worth a thousand words

9781608198061_custom-035ffdc5e88431604aa7739c254c44f7148f65e0-s300-c85Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  may well have been the best memoir published in 2014, and of course it is like no other. Roz Chast, prolific writer and artist, uses standard book form so inventively, so enticingly, filling the pages with so many visual delights that you’d follow her anywhere. Right into the Place [sic] where her ancient parents wound up, right into their bedroom, right into their illnesses and deaths. Painful as the material gets (psychologically, emotionally, physically), there’s no way you don’t see it through to the bitter end.

Chast’s drawing is unique, but what she does on the page as an artist isn’t completely new: other writer/artist/book designers have done similar things: combined panels with no-panels, used hand-drawn headlines, created pages that mix text with large images, and so on. Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, for example. The design vocabulary exists; the question is what the writer/artist does with it.

Like these other luminaries, Chast perfectly uses the pictorial as a medium for her own clear, intelligent, funny, insightful voice. Or maybe the right word is “support”: her visuals support her writing. Neither would be as strong without the other, but the evidence suggests that despite all those years of withdrawing into drawing, Chast is a writer first. She has something to say, and her drawings are the delivery system. IMG_1138Take a close look: there’s hardly a drawing that doesn’t use words in one way or another. That’s not an accident.

Since her book is a memoir, she’s also wrestling with all the issues that every memoirist must confront. Her parents are dead, so she seems unconflicted about revealing their quirks and weirdnesses, as well as the peculiarities of their marriage and their parenting. IMG_1136She’s straightforward about her own difficulties with her parents too.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the almost total absence of her own husband and children. When it comes to Chast’s own marriage and parenting, the shades are almost all the way down. Her daughter is mentioned several times and pictured once or twice; the word “husband” comes up a few times.

This is a perennial problem for nonfiction writers trying to tell a family story: they are entitled to tell their personal stories, but what do they do about the other family members? How far can they go in revealing what their children and partners don’t want revealed?

I imagined this conversation between Chast and her husband:

“Sweetie, I’m going to write a book about my parents.”

“Great, Roz, just leave me out.”

“How can I leave you out? You were there.”

“Maybe, but leave me out. I don’t want to be in the book.”

The absence of her own husband and kids in this family story seems in an odd way to reiterate Chast’s childhood isolation. IMG_1140In other words, it appears as if her life with her difficult parents was still—in this tale of their last years—a closed circle. I have no idea if this is true or not; I only know what the writer/artist has put on her pages.

What I do know, though, is that even a memoir done right (and this one is done very right) will always have gaps. There’s no way to tell the entire story, and one component of writing artful memoir is how you use what you’re allowed to use.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Warwick’s, La Jolla, CA

Union Ave Books, Knoxville, TN

The Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA

The memoir-novel–or the novel-memoir?

What accounts for our current—or recurrent—fascination with memoir-novels? That’s the question posed in the NYT “Bookends” feature of December 23.

Two very good writers take it on: Leslie Jamison (of The Empathy Exams) and Daniel Mendelsohn (essayist, book reviewer, memoirist). Their points are interesting, Mendelsohn’s perhaps a little more than Jamison’s if you’re looking for an answer to the posed question, since he addresses the issue more directly.

Both Jamison and Mendelsohn write about the memoir-novel from the reader’s point of view. Jamison says, for instance, in an analysis of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, “We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.” Reader’s POV.

Mendelsohn writes, in dissecting the slippage between memoir and fiction, “What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by [James] Frey and others: They came for ‘redemption’ and they got it, even if it turned out to have been provided by fiction rather than fact.” Reader’s POV.

Either Mendelsohn or Jamison could easily have discussed the memoir-novel from the author’s point of view, but that was not the question with which they were charged. They did their jobs; now I’m thinking about my job, which happens to be writing a memoir-novel. Or—more accurately—a novel-memoir.

It is not splitting hairs to reverse the order of the terminology. At least, not in my own case.

There are writers who quite deliberately translate memoir into thinly-veiled fiction, and there are legitimate, even good, reasons for doing this: taking a small step back from reality may allow more clarity of thinking; it may also give the writer the freedom to adjust history a bit, for whatever personal requirement—reconciliation, perhaps, or even fear of lawsuits.

The difference between a memoir-novel and a novel-memoir is this: in a novel-memoir, the claims of novelistic thinking come first. A novel-memoir, no matter how closely it is or isn’t based on a “true” story, must work first as a novel. If you have a “true” story to tell in fiction and you cling to the “truth” instead of thinking like a novelist, you may find yourself sacrificing good writing to the demands of your own psychological needs.

Too rigorous? Then don’t write a novel-memoir; write, instead, a memoir-novel, in which you will more easily be able to justify clinging to what (you think) actually happened. You will more easily allow yourself to maintain loyalty to the “truth,” rather than loyalty to good writing. You will not think first like a novelist; you’ll think first like a memoirist.

Of course, if you do that you may risk losing narrative steam, arc, good dialogue, action, depth, breadth, and a dozen other novelistic options. On the other hand, you may feel better about the story you’re telling; you may feel you’re conveying the “truth” with more integrity.

But the novelist’s responsibility is to the novel.

On a small scale, this injunction to think like a novelist brings us back to that annoying “kill off your darlings” concept. Annoying because the phrase is used both to intimidate and chasten writers, when all it really means is that a writer does well to consider the design of her entire novel rather than become attached to small baubles that shine for only a moment and do not add to its overall quality. If the “darling” works, fine; if not, let it go.

So on a larger scale, if a memoiristic point enhances your novel, fine. If not, let it go.

This is what I think each day when I work on my novel: What actually happened was traumatic enough for one person to live through, and writing about it has not so much helped me as given me permission to stay with it and relive it as much as I need to. But when that phase is over, then novel-making must begin in earnest. I must take myself in hand and rethink all the parts that wallow in memoir and undermine the novel.

Writing a novel is a matter of artistry, not therapy. The creation of a novel-memoir may have to pass through a stage in which the therapeutic outweighs the artistry; it may, in the end, coincidentally, be therapeutic. Yet (with rare exceptions) a good novel-memoir transcends that private state of self-healing and expands enough to include the reader.

Questioning is the primary lesson I’ve learned—am still learning—while trying to nail this novel-memoir. That was not how I started out: I started out by spilling my guts onto the pages. When I’d had enough of that, I tried—am still trying—to be my own reader for as long as it takes to get to a complete first draft. It’s edifying. And it’s not even that difficult.

Disconnect just enough to read the pages as if you were someone else. Not a hostile someone else, not your partner or your mother, not the New York Times reviewer, not a reader who’d never in a million years buy your book or take your book out of the library. Think of a reader much like yourself, with the same expectations of fiction that you have, and read through her eyes. Let yourself know when your novel-memoir has turned in on itself and become, mistakenly, memoir-novel. Then fix it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

Orca Books, Olympia, WA

 

Reader’s Diary: end-game journeys

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As you see, I did not want to put the buzzwords into the title of this post because if I had, there’s a chance you wouldn’t be reading this very sentence.  Some of the buzzwords are:

aging •  failing • waiting • loneliness • Loss • ending • dying • DEATH

Grim stuff? Perhaps, but it’s our stuff. Everyone’s stuff. Everyone ages. Some of us won’t age as much as we wish we could, some of us will age more than we’re happy about. But we will age; we’ll approach death. Writers will write about the experience, good or bad; many readers will read about it, though sometimes reluctantly.

  • There’s a kind of fiction that’s incidentally about aging and death, that is, the aging simply happens along with the story. Memory or flashback is often the frame.
  • There’s another kind of fiction that’s about coping—with aging, being older or old, illness, imminent death, the aftermath of loss. Some of that fiction is from the point of view of the older person, some is from the POVs of children, friends, or caregivers. It’s fiction like any other, and it can be very helpful to readers.
  • A lot of aging-related nonfiction is, of course, factual information offered by experts, about the process, the physical and emotional issues, etc.
  • Memoirs and creative nonfiction written in old or older age frequently describe the experience of aging, being old, living old, and knowing you’re going to die soon. They’re about personal experience, setting the record straight, filling in the blanks, sharing knowledge or wisdom, being angry or sad, funny or resigned, ready—or not ready.

Readers generally choose age-appropriate or stage-appropriate literature. When you’re in your twenties, in school, in love, in early parenthood, etc., you’re less likely to want to read an account of life in the assisted-living facility. Yet if you’re in your forties and coping with elderly parents, this may be your literature of choice. At my stage, I’m not much interested in meet-cute romances or the trials of motherhood, but tales of aging can depress me.

The problem is that a great deal of amazing writing gets done by older writers and some of it is about aging and some of it gets short shrift. Only a very unusual thirty-year-old editor is going to take an old man’s memoirs seriously (unless he’s an ex-president) or an old woman’s short stories seriously (unless she’s a Nobel Prize winner).

May Sarton, poet, novelist, and memoirist, wrote eloquently about aging. “Memoirist” is not quite the right term for her, but one can’t call her a “journalist” despite the fact that she wrote elegant journals about her life. For example, Journal of a Solitude is—if you allow yourself to be absorbed by this poetic yet down-to-earth account—simply a wonderful journey with Sarton. And perhaps that’s the best word association: her journals are about her journey.

Sarton, who died in 1995, overcame several major illnesses and the loss of many close friends and lovers to continue writing journals almost to the end of her life. The journals are sometimes marred by her narcissism, yet they remain astonishing views into the process of aging. I single her out because her journals are favorites of mine, but she is only one of many writers who have had the courage, insight, energy, wit, and humor to tackle waning lives as only writers can—by writing through them.

There are many choices for reading in this topic; the following is quite a short list, compared to what’s available. Which is to say that despite the reluctance of some editors and some readers, good books about difficult topics do get published.

Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, John Gould

Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner

The Diary of a Good Neighbor, Doris Lessing (NB: also called The Diary of Jane Somers #1)

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

Krapp’s Last Tape and Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabokov

Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

As We Are NowMay Sarton

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

The Year of Magical ThinkingJoan Didion

My Mother’s IslandMarnie Mueller

PatrimonyPhilip Roth

And here are a few links to very good lists of books—fiction and nonfiction—about aging:

I would like to add two more words to the discussion: William Trevor. Not that beloved Mr. Trevor, who is now eighty-six, is a writer particularly concerned with work about old age. No, I mention him because he is still writing, he is still brilliant, and any reader or writer of fiction who hasn’t read him should search him out ASAP.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Crawford Doyle Booksellers, New York, NY

Snow Goose Bookstore, Stanwood, WA

Women & Children First, Chicago, IL

 

 

Following Sendak to Connecticut, via the Cumberland Mountains

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A small article in the New York Times, Philadelphia Museum Losing Its Maurice Sendak Collection,” tells us that the Rosenbach Museum and Library will be turning over more than 10,000 Sendak drawings and other items to the Maurice Sendak Foundation. The foundation intends to create a strictly-Sendak museum in Ridgefield, CT.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1928 and died in Connecticut in 2012, and in his eighty-three years wrote and illustrated some of the most beloved and controversial children’s books of our time. You know them all.

But here’s something I’ll bet you don’t know: Between 1951, when Sendak first made illustrations for a children’s book (The Wonderful Farm, by Marcel Aymé), and 1956, when he wrote and illustrated his own first children’s book, he made ink drawings for a book called Singing Family of the Cumberlands, by folksinger Jean Ritchie.IMG_0396

Singing Family was published in 1955 by Oxford University Press, and it is one of the most charming and affecting memoirs you’ll ever read, written long before the emergence of tell-all family stories—yet it’s full of drama, romance, comedy, tragedy, and American history. IMG_0397Ritchie, born in 1922, describes growing up in tiny Viper, Kentucky, deep in the Cumberland Mountains—the southern Appalachians—with her parents and thirteen older brothers and sisters.

Hardscrabble farming and raising some animals sustained them, but the most important activity for the Ritchies was music: singing (especially ballads), often accompanied by mountain dulcimer. In her memoir Ritchie includes the words and music to many of the songs she later sang at festivals, and recorded as well.

My mother owned all her records; I grew up knowing that reedy southern voice very well. But it was the memoir I adored, almost to the point of pain, certainly to the point of being unwilling to share the actual book with anyone: I borrowed it permanently from my parents when I left for college. Some years later, in a moment of madness, I loaned it to a friend who not only took his time returning it but appeared, for a brief while, to have misplaced it. I’ve never let it out of my hands since then.

What I loved so much in Singing Family of the Cumberlands was the value Ritchie’s community placed on a fine storyteller and a well-told story; I loved also the intimate view of family life, the privilege of looking in through the Ritchies’ windows. I loved learning about a tradition almost unimaginably different from my own.

And all of the stories were enhanced by Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak’s gentle, respectful drawings. There are only thirteen chapters and only one drawing at the head of each chapter—not very many drawings, but they are as eloquent as the memoir. It was many years before it dawned on me that those drawings were by that Maurice Sendak.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands is still available in paperback, even from non-Amazon sources: try Powell’s, Half.com, Alibris, Barnes & Noble.

For a real treat, listen to Jean Ritchie talk about writing and publishing Singing Family.

 SIDEBAR: Maurice Sendak hated e-books.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, Farmington, ME

Island Books, Mercer Island, WA

Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

8B10D2BB-1DD8-B71C-07540DCA7652B6EC-smallThere’s a fascinating obit in the NYT today: Penelope Niven, biographer of poet Carl Sandburg, writer Thornton Wilder, and photographer Edward Steichen, died on August 28, 2014.

It’s a story of saying yes, which had to have involved a lot of saying no, which is the topic of today’s regular 9:30 a.m. post: No is YES. Think about it : It’s the 1970s. A forty-year-old high school English teacher who’s never written a book becomes obsessed with Carl Sandburg after helping (unpaid) with an exhibit of his papers. She knows a biography must be written, that Sandburg must be reintroduced to American readers, but until Sandburg’s former agent suggests it, she never considers herself as author.

Fourteen years and one divorce later, her book is published. To write such a definitive and respected biography she must have had to choose repeatedly between work and everything else in her life. She must have had to say no to many people in order to say yes to her work.

Mother’s memoir class

Last August Diana Calta, soon to be ninety-three, was invited to a one-afternoon memoir-writing class.  She wouldn’t have thought to go if she hadn’t been invited, but she’s game and smart and interested–so she went.

Diana lives in a retirement community in Montpelier VT, near her younger daughter, writer Marialisa Calta, and about 3000 miles from her older daughter, former city manager of Del Mar CA, Lauraine Esparza. Lauraine is one of my very best friends, and I’ve known Diana for most of my life.

Diana isn’t a writer, but she does have stories.  Yet she’s from a generation that didn’t always share them, so a memoir class was going to be a challenge for her. A good challenge, as it turned out.

The teacher, from a local college, gave the attendees three topics and asked them to write a short paragraph about each.  Here are Diana’s, verbatim.

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Someone who influenced you a lot

I remember my Father.  Probably the greatest influence in my life. He was a misfit–intelligent beyond his contemporaries.  A misfit! He taught me a love of history–literature and the world. He spoke several languages–taught himself English and made his way in this new country, alone. Education was so important to him. He determined that I would have a good one. On graduation day I saw him cry.

A memorable childhood experience

I remember being on a trip to Europe. I was 5 and I don’t remember a great deal.  I know we traveled in France and in Italy. My one memory that I can still see–in my mind–was Mt. Vesuvius. We were at the top of the rim–looking down into the crater and it was on fire–boiling–gurgling–and red and I was frightened.  They tell me I saw Rome, I saw Paris.  I saw mountains, but all I remember was that boiling cauldron.

My proudest accomplishment

It’s difficult to write about being proud without sounding boastful or feeling boastful. I have not achieved much in my life that is outstanding or memorable. I’ve done what was expected of me!! Now that I have lived a long blessed life I can see that most aims in life are really unimportant. So I must say, because I am not original, that I am most proud of my two daughters who have achieved what they seem to want out of life. Two loving, concerned individuals who care for friends, family and people. Friends come next–loyal, loving, helpful friends.  There is not much else.

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My appreciation and gratitude to Diana Calta for allowing me to share her words with you.

 

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Homer Bookstore, Homer AK

Atomic Books, Baltimore MD 

Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe, Boulder CO

 

Book list: memoirs you might like to read

This is my list of some of the memoirs I love. It’s not a complete list of memoirs, so please do not write to admonish me about the memoirs I left out. Do write to tell me what your favorites are.

Here it comes, right up front: You will notice some glaring omissions. The Glass Castle, for example, a favorite of millions but not of mine. Angela’s AshesThe Liar’s Club, and Just Kids, ditto. I’m sorry. We’re not going to agree on everything.

Also, I haven’t read all the memoirs I’ve meant to read, not by a long shot, and that makes for some glaring omissions too. Like Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and hundreds more.

SOME FAVORITE MEMOIRS,TO DATE, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

  • Stop-Time, Frank Conroy
  • Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  • Heaven’s Coast, Mark Doty
  • Singing Family of the Cumberlands, Jean Ritchie
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • A Three Dog Life, Abigail Thomas
  • The Suicide Index, Joan Wickersham
  • Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote
  • The Story of My Father, Sue Miller
  • Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, Geralyn Lucas
  • Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes
  • Darkness Visible, William Styron
  • Daughters and Rebels, Jessica Mitford
  • The Duke of Deception, Geoffrey Wolff
  • This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

BOOK FEAST: If you’d like to see a rather amazing reading list of “contemporary creative nonfiction,” compiled by writer Sue William Silverman, look for it here.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena CA

The Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale AZ

Carmichael’s Bookstore, Louisville KY

You met the Girl Group on Day 1 of The Book Under Her Bed (“What book under whose bed?“).  The members discuss memoir often, hence my short between-meetings note to them.

Hello, writers–

Maybe this quote from George Orwell says more about the writer than the genre, and maybe more about the gender than the genre.  On the other hand, we know how avidly readers devour the “disgraceful,” so perhaps the remark can be construed as both warning and advice to writers, in 1944 and 2014.

Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.  A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

Shouldn’t we, in 2014, make a distinction between autobiography and memoir?  My heart leaps down at the thought of slogging through a broad “fact”-filled autobiography, even if (especially if) it’s about some movie star or politician.  

But my heart leaps high at the prospect of a memoir: rich in emotion; focused on a particular event or period of time; trying to make sense (for the author, and then the reader) out of something important in her/his life. Memoir is more about memory than facts, and that tends to make memoirs more original and inventive than autobiography. More interesting too.

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UPCOMING POST: The next regular Thursday afternoon post–i.e., today’s post– will be a list of some favorite memoirs you might consider reading.  In the Comments section of that post, please do send the titles and authors of  your most-loved memoirs too.