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

When writers flail

If you are required (or if you require yourself) to produce pieces of writing on a regular basis, flailing is unavoidable. The definition of “flail” is visually delightful: to wave or swing or cause to wave or swing wildly. lindy-e1378959751286Lindyhoppers and jitterbuggers come to mind instantly, their hands waving and flapping, the girls’ skirts swinging out, the couples dancing wildly.

Unfortunately, that picture leaves out the other part of the definition of “flail”: to flounder, struggle uselessly, thrash, writhe. Uh-oh. Now we’re getting closer to the writer’s truth.

This flailing issue presented itself when I was flailing around, trying to think of what to write for TBUHB for a December 22 post that very few people would be likely to read. Does anyone want to read blog posts when there are only three days until Christmas? This is discouraging to a blog-writer.

On the other hand, if people prefer to shop and bake cookies instead of reading a blog post, then it’s only fair for me to be allowed to flail as much as I want. Freedom to flail, without fear of flailure!

Anyway, flailing came up because my thought about what to write today was a bounce off a really wonderful article in the November 4, 2014 New York Times, called “As a Writer, What Influences You Other Than Books?” Okay, I lied: it’s a half-wonderful article.

The piece is one of the regular NYT series called “Bookends,” in which two writers answer the same question, each in his or her own particular way. In this case, Thomas Mallon aces it with this answer: “I keep photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.”

Nice. Clear. A cogent explanation of how the photos work for him.

James Parker, however, answered the question like this: “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.”

Obscure. Obtuse. Moral obligation to be cheerful?

So okay, he’s opting for puckish in his answer to the basic question. He also states that his “greatest nonliterary influences have been drummers, comedians and bakers.” The rest of his text is—I think—supposed to be amusing and clever, whimsical and offbeat, a pyrotechnic display of references and allusions. Which reads a lot like flailing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of flailing (in writing) is confusion. Another is deflection. A third is showing off. All of these conspire to distract the reader from noticing that not much is being said. It amounts to the writer’s version of sleight of hand. As I read and reread the Parker half of the piece, I understood less and less of what he was writing about.

And as I read and reread Parker’s flailing, I cared less and less about whatever point he was trying to make. If there was a point about what influences him, it got lost among the jazzy phrases; it hared off in odd directions, one after another. It made me think of being cornered at a party by a stoned kid who was absolutely sure he was making scintillating sense and, worse, that his captive audience gave a damn.

And yet his wind-up brought me back to my holiday-season-induced flailing with a thump. Here he is still dithering on about the lessons learned in the bakery where he once worked:

If you’re depressed, maimed, crocked in some way, fair enough—let us know. But if not, then in the name of humanity stop moaning. Keep a lightness about you, a readiness. Preserve the digestions of your co-workers; spare them your mutterings and vibings. It’s highly nonliterary, but there we are: be nice.

I like that. It’s good advice, even if it has nothing to do with the original question. It’s a tough time of year: BE NICE.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Alley Cat Books, San Francisco, CA

Titcomb’s Bookshop, East Sandwich, MA

The Velveteen Rabbit Bookshop, Fort Atkinson, WI

 

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

 

 

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.