Here’s the situation: I applied to a competitive writing course this past spring but was rejected. (I wanted to personally thank you for applying. I’m so sorry we couldn’t offer you a spot in this year’s class. I was, however, impressed with your application and I hope you’ll consider taking more classes at…)
Why not me? I thought I had a grand application!
One of my writer friends got in though, and when she mentioned receiving a required reading list as part of her workload, I asked for a copy. I figured that just because I wasn’t enrolled didn’t mean I couldn’t learn alongside.
Skimming the list of books on craft, I immediately knew who I wanted to read first.
I took a different, shorter course on memoir writing this summer instead, and while my instructor made several points about craft that allowed me to consider different ways to approach my own storylines, we spent most of our class time in workshop mode. That is to say, at least fifty percent of class time was spent praising and critiquing peer material.
In preparation each week, I spent hours reading and rereading my classmates’ work, considering the plot, the characters, the word choice, the conflict, the pacing, and what I am coming to realize is the hardest part of memoir: the layering of the narrator’s and character’s voices.
Gornick says this is the key. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (13)
This wisdom, she says, must be arrived at honestly by the hands of a reliable narrator. The narrator allows the writer to make sense of what happened. As her own gifted teacher of writing once said, “Good writing has two characteristics...It’s alive on the page and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” (14)
The tricky part of memoir is that the narrator and protagonist are one in the same...except at different points in time and at different points along an emotional journey. Referencing an essay by George Orwell regarding his post in Lower Burma, she describes how “paragraph upon paragraph -- composed in almost equal part of narration, commentary, and analysis -- attests to a reflective nature now regarding its own angry passions with a visceral but contained distaste.” (16)
In order to gain the right perspective (and develop the reliable narrator), Gornick recommends finding the right tone, syntax and point of view -- “to pull back -- way back -- from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure.” (22) The narrator provides the insight that organizes the writing. The narrator’s sympathy for the protagonist “creates a dynamic in writing, the one necessary to stimulate internal movement” -- through which a writer struggles “to make sense of [complex] feelings.” (32-33)
But how to gain this perspective? That’s still not clear to me. Many writers say it just takes time. Or that you need to put your work in the drawer for a while and pick it up after emotions have cooled. But my writer friends and I also talk about where we like to write -- Coffeeshop? Office? Mountain cabin? Some of us were scandalized that one of us wrote in bed. (No! Bed should be a protected space!) But I hadn’t considered why certain places worked over others until I read Harry Crews’ explanation of why he lives in Gainesville in order to write about Georgia:
“If you don’t leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” (46)
I guess it makes sense -- you have to be close enough to the memory in order to conjure it, but far enough from it that your narrator can stand on her own feet.
In the end, Gornick concludes that since it’s not possible to teach someone how to write (although I think she does a great job of explaining the nuances of the craft!), the point of these courses is to “teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others…[to ask] what is this all about?” Such questions turn the writer’s attention to the narrator and how to use that narrator to relay the story of the subject struggling with the material. (159)
Gornick says that a good essay, for example, will demonstrate the narrator “moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified knowledge.” (36) I hope I’ve made a similar journey over the past few months. I don’t know if my writing has improved at all this summer, but I know I’ve benefited from a humbling experience that spurred me on to further study. And I’ve definitely benefited from reading the stories of others. I have learned how to dissect a piece in order to figure out what’s working and what isn’t, so at the very least, I have a better grasp of what I need to work on.
It’s time to tear it up. I’m moving on to revision, because even though it’s an emotional process, I agree with Gornick that:
“That impulse -- to tell a tale rich in context, alive in situation, shot through with event and perspective -- is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.” (90)
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.