At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Writing the Memoir (multiple entries)

I've pulled the trigger on  my new book-to-be, a nonfiction work on hunting.  After some agonizing in a couple of earlier blog entries (I worried that readers don't hunt, and hunters don't read) I just had to dive in.  Deadlines are a good thing, and my editor's winged' chariot is always hurrying near.  But I'm pleased at how it's going.  I have a couple of titles in mind, a general arc forward, an  overall rhetoric (which is always comforting), and I'm taking real  pleasure  in writing nonfiction prose.
Fiction, of  course, is written in prose (as opposed to poetry, though there are novels written in verse), but I  mean writing nonfiction-style prose.  Full-bodied paragraphs with topic sentences.  Parallelism.  Semicolons.  The occasional conjunctive adverb.  The  goal for any writer is what Orwell called "Windowpane prose":  a style of writing by which the reader can see through, without distraction, to the subject matter under scrutiny.

 If we write  well we can write about anything--and have readers.  I remember reading a very long New Yorker article by John McPhee on oranges and how they're grown.  Afterward, I couldn't believe I had stayed with it, but was happy that I did.

My  "hunting book", however, is a delicate dance.  If  it is true generally that readers aren't big into hunting, and hunters not big into reading, then I must find my way to a comfortable middle ground without losing my readers on the two margins.
What has started as a straight nonfiction book is tilting toward memoir.  Which is a process of editing life.  We  leave out the meaningless times (we all have years of them) in order to find a coherent thread.  A narrative line that both makes sense of life, and amplifies its significance.   Example: Patricia Hampl's The Florist's Daughter.  From the get-go we understand intuitively that this book is not about climbing mountains or inventing an AIDS vaccine; that it's a "small" book wherein the main character has forked no lightning; a book about family.  You can never go wrong writing about family (we all have one), and with Hampl, the sentences alone are worth the price of the book.

One can write several memoirs.  We can't (probably shouldn't) try to write the "definitive" memoir.  Rather, there are multiple threads in our lives, and the goal is to pick one and follow it forward.
Nonfiction books can be placed on a continuum of the author's voice and visibility.  For example, we could write a biography that, by nature, should have nothing at all to do with us.  The far other side is the intensely personal memoir (the "confessional", ala James Frey) that is all about us.  And of course there and endless gradations between those two poles.  My friend, the late Jon Hassler, a novelist, was once asked, "How much of your fiction is based in real life?"  His answer:  "27.4 percent."  (He was a wry, witty guy.)

Also, you should not talk too much about your writing in-progress.  Nattering on, describing what one is writing bleeds away psychic energy that you need for yourself and for the book.   Don't give it away.  Put it between the imaginary covers of your book-to-be. 

A Couple Of Weeks Later
I have a title:  The Last Hunter:  An American Family Album. The subtitle is a bit artsy, but it dovetails with a photography thing I'm doing inside the book (no actual photos, but old snapshots described). 

And writing this memoir been way trickier than I thought.  Fifty pages into it, here's what I've learned:
There's no place to hide.  In fiction, there's the reliable "Any resemblance to persons living or dead..." disclaimer, but in nonfiction it's life without make-up.  Maybe some blush-on and eyeliner for the "creative nonfiction" types, but memoir writing (memory lapses aside) had better be the truth.  The real truth.  If I (you) starting leaving out uncomfortable facts, we're done.  Might as well go watch football.

Now back to work.

Three Months Later (this piece was published in the HuffingtonPost Books Section)
I learned some things while writing my memoir The Last Hunter:  An American Family Album.  For me, a fiction writer, the memoir was new territory– a literary form I had always lumped in with the autobiography.  But clearly they were different.  If an autobiography is the true and full story of one’s life—the entire trip so to speak—a memoir examines  recurring scenes along the way.  A memoir is for making sense of patterns in our lives (mother issues, spiritual growth, addictions), and their roles in how we live and think.

One largely unexamined aspect of my life was hunting. I grew up in the Midwest, and to pick up a shotgun or a rifle in the fall was a given.  Hunting was seamlessly integrated into Minnesota farm life, and so embedded in rural culture that, in November, schools closed for the opening days of the deer season.  This fact never seemed remarkable to me until years later, when literary life began to supplant my woodsman side.  When great books became more important than a well-oiled Winchester.  When travel and “distance,” as Blaise Pascal wrote, “lends perspective.”

In fact, it was a young woman editor who suggested I write The Last Hunter (in my family, c’est moi). I was initially skeptical.  I had paid enough attention to recent memoirs to know that writers such as James Frey and Margaret B. Jones had, by their dishonesty, cast a pall over the whole genre.  And second, who would read a book about killing things?

“But it’s not really about hunting,” my editor insisted.  “It’s about family, and tradition, and great change.  It’s about sentences and literary form.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But readers don’t hunt and hunters don’t read. That leaves almost no one to buy this book.  My own two kids don’t even hunt.  I’ve got these fine old guns that no one will ever shoot.”

“That’s the interesting part!” she said.  “Just write it.  We’ll worry about readers later.” (I’m a lucky guy to have such an editor.) 

The writing went surprisingly well–the more I wrote the more I remembered.  How my uncles all carried their rifles differently. The dark rosettes of sliced deer heart frying in butter in a heavy, cast iron pan.  The whistle of duck wings in early morning dark. The sweet, spiced smell of mincemeat that we cooked and canned family-style—all hands to the kitchen–over a long day filled with stories and laughter and good work.  But also the ever-increasing pull of the city on me and my children.  My editor was right:  the book quickly became far more about the arc of family life than about guns.

Still, hunting has a brutal side.  Crippled birds not found. Blood trails and gut piles.  Shooting accidents (my family has had its tragedies).  It soon became clear to me as I wrote:  tell the truth or stay home.  There are enough censors out there; the last thing I wanted to do was join their ranks.  No “creative nonfiction” to muddy the works.  Clarity and truth: the memory deserves no less.

Another lesson became evident.  While The Last Hunter necessarily had to be a closely observed, personal story, it also had to connect to the main—to the general reader.  A memoir should hold up a mirror, or least a fragment of one, with which other people might begin to examine their own experiences.  If a subject matter such as hunting is far afield–even offensive to some– a memoir in the least ought to provide readers an unvarnished look at how other people go about justifying their lives and making sense of things. 

Four Months Later
Have been on the road for three weeks doing promo for the book, including several TV slots in Minneapolis.  My comment in an earlier entry about "connecting with the main"appears to on target; I'm hearing from lots of readers about similar changes in their family--that familiar arc, in the Midwest, of leaving the land.  The book hit 20,000 on Amazon's ranking, though now is higher.  But clearly it's selling some copies.  I think it's a book that, by its prose and assemblage, will have legs.  Longevity.  Which is the best an author can hope for.

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