How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

hampl

 

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

 

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

 

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

 

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

 

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

 

One of the most compelling things about this collection is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Call for Submissions: The Litragger

Are you looking for a place to re-publish works that have already appeared in print?  The Litragger is the place!  Check out their submission guidelines below:

 

Dear Writers,

We are republishing work that has previously appeared in print, exists in back issues, but does not have an online presence. We believe firmly in the benefit of publishing in print. But we also believe that writers deserve the opportunity to place their work online in a well-designed reading environment, following the print publication cycle, so that they may find new readers and build an audience on the web.

So if you have a piece, send it to us!

Email a word document or PDF to submissions@litragger.com.

Just let us know where it appeared originally and when it was published, and we’ll read it and let you know if we think it’s a good fit.

- Adam and Landon

 

Reading for Writers: Dino Campana’s “The Night”

200px-Dino_Campana1909

 

There were a lot of interesting things happening in Dino Campana’s essay “The Night.” There were some incredible metaphors and exquisite language which made me wonder about the expectations that we usually have for nonfiction in terms of style and language. Another stylistic component of note is that Campana does not use any names to refer to the characters in this essay. Instead, the only names that he uses are those of famous artists and writers. Campana also has a really arresting way of changing the pronouns that he uses for the characters, including himself, in his work. The effect of this is jarring but also captivating.

The first thing I noticed about this essay was the language being used. It is incredibly poetic and lyrical. There are a number of really striking metaphors, for example, “broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows.” Or, even more gripping: “the white Mediterranean night joked with the huge shapes of the women while the flame’s bizarre death-attempts went on and on in the streetlamp’s cave.” Language like this, though interesting and beautiful may be jarring for a reader who is looking for a straightforward account of Campana’s escapades. It made me think about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction and whether essays have an obligation to live up to these expectation. Is it factually true that the night was joking (Or, put another way, can that be fact checked?)? How does metaphor come into play in essays? Or, more directly, what is the place of metaphor and lyrical, poetic language in nonfiction? If the reader is coming to the piece looking for truth and accuracy, how far can the writer go with metaphors and poetic language? In general, I think that if it is clear that the writer is using metaphor and clear what the writer is intending to express, this kind of language can greatly enhance creative nonfiction pieces. However, in this piece the metaphors were so dense and thick that it may have obscured some of the reader’s understanding of the truths behind the language. It made me question whether that was intentional. Perhaps Campana’s experience was so dreamlike that he wanted to convey that to the reader. Or maybe he did not want his reader to have a clear sense of what was going on. Perhaps he wanted his reader to experience the feel of the situation more than the events surrounding it. Is this authorial prerogative?

The esoteric, dreamlike quality of this narrative is pushed further by Campana’s refusal to use the names of characters populating his essay. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ever refer to anyone in the narrative by their name, only by their physical description. This can make it difficult for the reader to follow at times, but it also is especially interesting given the subject matter. Perhaps Campana did not know the name of anyone with whom he interacted that night. This is made even more peculiar by the constant name-dropping that he does with famous writers and artists. The lack of character names in the essay is even more stark next to the names of Faust, Dante, Leonardo, and Michelangelo and the names of saints. It’s as if he is drawing the distinction between these exalted, nameable people and the people in his narrative.

In addition to not giving his characters names, he also switches the pronoun that he uses to refer to them. In one section of the essay, he refers to the amber-bodied girl as “she” and later he seems to be addressing her as”you.” The most striking instance in which he does this is when he goes from using a first-person perspective of his experience to speaking about himself in the third person briefly. He refers to “the person I had once been” as “he” for two sections. This gives an interesting effect of distancing himself from the events of the night, making it his former self and not him who had these experiences. However, he only can keep this distance for a short time before going back to “I” and owning the experiences again.

All of these things made this essay difficult to decipher, as if the reader were decoding the text instead of reading it. The use of metaphors and lyrical language obscured some of the concreteness of the experiences that he was ruminating on.   The failure to use names of characters often made who he was actually talking about ambiguous. Even his pronouns when talking about these people (including himself!) were not consistent. The combination of these things gave the essay a dreamlike, nearly impenetrable quality. However, for me personally, these things added an interesting depth and dimension to the essay as well as giving a peak into the possible obfuscation that Campana was attempting. It made me ask a lot of questions, mostly unresolved, but also very interesting.

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices.

Call for Submissions: The Great American Lit Mag

The Great American Lit Mag is open for submissions!  Check them out!

 

 

The Great American Lit Mag welcomes general submissions of prose and poetry. Our reading periods run for two months at a time with a month off in between for our editors to construct each issue. Our current reading period will run from August 1st-September 30th.

We are happy to consider simultaneous submissions, so long as you withdraw your work from consideration within ten minutes of it being accepted elsewhere.

Unlike most other publications, we are happy to consider previously published work. However, it is unlikely that we will republish any work that is not INCREDIBLE. If you choose to submit previously published work, please note it in your cover letter and include the following sentence: This work has been previously published at (fill in appropriate time and place); however, all publishing rights have been reverted to me, the author, and I am knowledgeably and willfully submitting it for republication under the expectation that my original publishers will be acknowledged. Our response time is typically less than 3 weeks. We want you to be able to get your work into as many hands as quickly and with the least amount of reluctance as possible if it doesn’t find a home here, so we aim to respond quickly.

We do not pay contributors for any work published in The Great American Literary Magazine.

 

Fiction

Prose should be no more than 3,000 words.

Please send your submission via email to thegreatamericanlitmag@gmail.com with a cover letter and a subject line including your last name and the word “fiction”. For example: Smith Fiction Submission.

Poetry

For poetry, please submit no more than 5 poems.

Please send your submission via email to thegreatamericanlitmag@gmail.com with a cover letter and a subject line including your last name and the word “poetry”. For example: Smith Poetry Submission.

Reading for Writers: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion, all based on the theme of things coming undone. She looks at this theme from a variety of angles, both personally reflective and also commenting on society at large. In this collection, Didion makes very interesting use of narrative structure when retelling events, adding to the feeling that “the center cannot hold” (xi).

Didion begins her book with the famous poem by Yeats in which he examines things coming undone. She also titles her book after the last line of this poem, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In her Preface, which is quite strange, Didion explains her collection. In rather defeatist, pessimistic terms, she presents us her work. She says that it is representative of her coming to terms with “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” (xiii). Throughout the book, the reader can feel this sense of crumbling and a loss of groundedness or centeredness. We see it in the way that her rock-like ideal of John Wayne falls apart with cancer and the way that she struggles with ethics in “On Morality.” Didion wrestles with ideas of a world coming undone, both the larger society and on a more personal, individual level.

However, this effect is most interesting when it comes out in the structure of her writing. This is apparent from her very first essay. In “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion does, in fact begin at the beginning of the story. “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country” (3). However, after a bit of background about the place and the history of the place, the linearity of the essay begins to fall apart. Like the falconer losing hold of the falcon, the essay almost seems to get away from Didion. She jumps from the background of the land to the death of the husband, to the funeral. She starts a new section with the birth of Lucille Miller through to her unhappy marriage and then brings her lens in close on the day in question before recounting Lucille’s arrest, jumping back to the night of the accident and then to the building of the case. The next section recounts her affair starting with a generalization and jumping straight to the end, before explaining more. Then Didion recounts a litany of events that happened the same day as the Miller trial began before recounting the trial and bringing us up to the present day at the time of writing. In this present day, she focuses in on the house left behind, the child of Lucille, and the inmates that Lucille is surrounded by instead of focusing in on the main character of the essay itself. The essay then returns to the past, ending at Arthwell Hayton’s second marriage. This jumping and twisting of time, structure and focus mirrors Didion’s words of things falling apart. Not only is the time not linear, but the lens of the narration moves too, sometimes focused on Lucille, sometimes the place, sometimes those whose lives mirror hers, such as her fellow inmates, others in the news the same day, or Arthwell Hayton’s new wife. This poignantly gives the reader the effect that the center, cannot, in fact hold. We can feel the way that Lucille must feel, that her world is unravelling, and also the way that those watching the story must feel: what is becoming of our society?

This is most powerfully shown in her essay after which the collection is named. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion gives us a picture of San Francisco in the 1960s. However, she does not explain it to use as much as she makes a pastiche of vignettes to give us a picture of the chaos and disorder of that place and time. She tells us from the get-go what she is getting at: “The center was not holding” (84). She tells us what is missing and how the reality is not meeting expectations. She gives us an array of sources to show us the disparate voices: a sign trying to find a missing person (almost perversely in verse), communiques from Chester Anderson, song lyrics, an excerpt from a newspaper, questions asked to her by other people, fliers. The weaves these throughout vignettes of stories of people she’s met in her time in the Bay Area. Even when telling the stories of these people, she jumps: from Deadeye to Max to little girls to runaways to Debbie to Officer Gerrans, back to Max. And that is just the first quarter of the essay. It’s not even clear that the vignettes are arranged chronologically. This cut-and-paste of the stories she experiences in San Francisco serve to further the feeling that things are coming apart: people are not acting as they should, time is not moving as it should, the narrator is not recounting as she should. Instead, the people are out of control, time is set spinning, and the narrator’s hold on the gyre is slipping.

 

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices.

Sharing: Suburban Ecology I by TheCartographe

I found this amazing bit of writing the other day on TheCartographe and just needed to share it with you!  As a lover of place and environment and the way that spaces effect us, I adore what’s happening on this blog: “TheCartographe is about the curation of the environment: the selection of images, texts, and ideas that is the formation of a landscape. Topography is physical, but landscape is always psychic.”

This blog is not to be missed. Enjoy!

 

Suburban Ecology I

July 9, 2014.

DSC_0115DSC_0112

 

Some millennia before the present, when the sea was in places it currently is not, it might have been that Anne Barton’s yard was a natural beach of smooth-hewn stones — perfect and round, themselves looking for all the world like fat droplets of water thrown up and clinging on the grassy shore.  The blue velvet easy chair stood primly on the rocks, taking the sea air like one who — feinting — is afraid of the ocean.  But Anne’s yard was not really a beach, of course, and the chair moreover took no solace from the pretend game of seaside release and introspection.  It did not appreciate the scene before it: the crisp break of sidewalk and swell of asphalt.  It was aware only of the thing it could not see — the blockish, secluded bungalow beyond the beachhead, where in the downstairs sitting room there was a precisely chair-shaped depression in a blanched shag carpet the colour of a watermelon where the meat comes to the rind.

I was in this house once, seven or eight years ago, when for one or another reason I  was collecting a size-adjustable mannequin from the Vietnam-era parlor upstairs, located at one end of a hallway encased exclusively by mirrors which, when shoved with some force, would open to reveal narrow closets stuffed with outerwear, shoes, and unlabelled boxes.  The front door, up a half-flight of steps from the lawn and partly concealed by an globular rhododendron, opened onto this hallway, and pointed inside toward the kitchen at the house’s rear.  There, I remember, Ms. Barton, an elderly woman who — to me — has never visibly aged, remained sitting at a card table while she asked me, standing against the entrance to the hall, if I would consider volunteering for her Sunday School.  I can’t recall answering the question.  Instead, I remember leafing through the records — none of which I recognized — contained in a cardboard box which sat on a brass-framed, stackable chair in the parlor, across the way from the kitchen.  I waited until Anne’s granddaughter, my associate, reappeared with a small plastic container filled with a multitude of compartments for pins, all heads different colours, and we departed with the rattling mannequin in parts under our free arms.

At that time, Anne’s garden was not half-covered in rocks.  In fact, it was a serene, if somewhat weedy glade, set apart from the street by the low boughs of a blue-needled pine tree which I did not recognize and now assume was originally decorative.  I lived — still live — in the house beside Anne’s; somewhat newer, somewhat more modish, my father would exasperatedly but quietly rake pinecones and long, browned needles off our lawn from September to Christmas.  At that time, Anne’s glade had real seating: a chipped, white wooden loveseat over-thrown by a modified trellis, and an elaborate swing — also wood — which reminded me always of my brother’s books on medieval implements of war.

It was one summer when I returned from university that the pine tree had been felled — its little ecosystem of sputtering grass and shed needles replaced by a neatly edged bed of lava rock.  Two ceramic pots had been placed off-centre on the wide stump, and in them the plastic-coated cardboard tags that identify greenhouse plants sprouted up like tombstones behind small, flowering stalks.  It was just last summer when the first five metres of Anne’s lawn had been dug up and replaced with the round stones.  At the same time, things began appearing on her driveway.  First the loveseat and swing, which soon disappeared, and then boxes of clothes, which would likewise appear in the morning and have vanished upon my return home in the afternoon.  Then, a tarpaulin tent appeared over a metal pole frame in the middle of the driveway, and a 1995 red Ford mustang would regularly pull in and out of it, as if on the tide.  This largely concealed the garage door, which remained closed during all this time.  I did not see Anne, though my father told me she continued to live there, and the cars that came and went (I noticed only the red convertible) were the vehicles of family and friends — or of the tenants downstairs who had moved in to the bungalow’s expansive basement.

The chair knew very little of this, being limited to the influence of the downstairs tenants and its sidelong views of sporadic children’s play in the tenants’ backyard daycare, a business Anne surely appreciated because of her attachment to children and their ideal upbringing.  When it was removed, I think, its first logical concern must have been the expected weather, and secondly the simple sign hung across its back — “FREE” — which would surely give anyone’s self-esteem a miserable pummeling.  It was, I doubt, hardly troubled by the premise that in millennia to come, it could be considered a distracting embellishment on the ecology of the house — a throwaway decoration not unlike the faking of a shoreline in a time of changing seas.

-tC

Call for Submissions: Banago Street

Banago Street is accepting submissions!  Check them out!

Banango Street is a thrice-yearly literary journal; It is edited by Rachel Hyman and Justin Carter of Banango Lit. We like words that invoke, works that break us (and themselves) in curious ways, & we want to move you. We have faith that this is still possible, but we need your help.
Join us?

Submissions are open for our special women’s issue, guest edited by Emily Kendal Frey and Julia Cohen. Female-identified, queer, and non-binary poets are invited to submit by August 3rd.

Regular submissions for Issue 10 will reopen in early August.

We take submissions in 4 categories: poetry, translations, collaborations, and art.
Please submit through our submissions manager.

You may submit up to 3 poems. If you wish to withdraw part of a submission, e-mail us at banangostreet@gmail.com.

Please do not submit previously published work. This includes personal blogs.

Simultaneous submissions are allowed. Please inform us immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere. An email will suffice.

Banango Street has first publication rights; upon publication, rights revert to the author. If your poems end up in a chapbook or book, we would love if you acknowledged us.