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|...there is a vast misunderstanding abroad about how to read a memoir. To state the case briefly:
memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a
memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in
newspaper reporting or historical narrative. What is owed the reader of a memoir is the ability to
persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the tale at hand.
—one of the essays in Truth in Nonfiction edited by David Lazar
You know that this has rankled me. You know that I've said that I don't like it when memoirs and autobiographies take this approach. And you know that I have painfully accepted that this is reality.
Another essay in Lazar's collection discusses Lillian Hellman's Julia, which was published as memoir, but which everyone has long known to be strictly fiction.
On the other hand, a revisionist piece on Madeleine L'Engle in the New Yorker several years ago described how her kids didn't much mind her non-fiction, which, after all, was mostly about religion and spirituality, but allegedly couldn't stand her fiction because the personalities of the characters were too much like those in the family.
To look at memoir as literature rather than as journalism can perhaps be put into context by Karl Klaus in The Made-Up Self, where he reflects on a Joan Didion essay, suggesting that Didion chose to write "as if to suggest that the experience of seeking the truth might be as important as the truth itself. As if the question – and the inquiring mind working its way toward insight – might be as important as the answer."
That view reflects values I have held all of my adult life. Which makes the statement rather hard for me to argue with. And which, perhaps, circles back to the validity of the first quote.
Back in 2008 I wrote with some annoyance about authors whose books purported to be non-fiction narratives, but which, in fact, deviated greatly from events as they actually happened. Then, the next year, after having pulled out and re-read some of my essays from the mid-1970's, I had to admit guilt myself.
It was with great interest, then, that I discovered a book Carl H. Klaus published last year called The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. Klaus writes:
|E. B. White in a letter about his work (August 15, 1969), frankly acknowledges that
"Writing is a form of imposture: I'm not at all sure I am anything like the person
I seem to a reader." And Nancy Mairs, whose self-revelatory essays in Carnal Acts
might seem to be unrehearsed confessions, declares in "But First," that
"I am not the woman whose voice animates my essays. She's made up."
I'm enjoying the book. It's interesting to delve further into this phenomenon.
I haven't been one to use semicolons. I've actually been something of a snob about semicolons, suggesting that only the best craftsmen, for example, writers such a Paul Theroux, should be using them.
There was no good reason for this. I think it goes back to the late 1990's, many managers and a few companies ago. I was a technical writer and my manager gave me a suggested edit that included a semicolon. In that particular instance I thought it was a bad writing choice, and anyway that manager really irked me. I had a rebellious tendency to want to do the opposite of what she suggested.
Recently, though, I have found myself using semicolons upon occasion. A couple of months ago I used a semicolon in a PowerPoint slide, and last week I used one in an email to a former colleague.
That raises the question, of course, will I use semicolons here in my blog?
I don't know; I'm still considering the alternatives.
I loved the Great Courses series on Cathedrals. It was fascinating and I learned a lot. But I was annoyed that the instructor didn't know the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. What is at Chartres is a labyrinth. There is a clear but convoluted path in and out. A maze has false directions and dead ends.
In the course Analysis and Critique, a series on writing, the professor said that the shelves at bookstores and libraries where "literally groaning" under the weight of books on management and leadership. I spent many years in the book business, several years as a store manager at B. Dalton. I was there when the store was closed and quiet, sometimes alone (in violation of company policy, but never mind that). Never once did I hear the shelves groan, even when we stocked Peter Drucker's heavy tome Management in the late 1970s.
It grates on me when academics who know better make such obvious errors.
Recently my treadmill Great Courses DVD viewing was Building Great Sentences. The premise of the course was that the best sentences are those which use a base clause followed by free modifiers and which avoid subordinate clauses. It's called cumulative syntax. It probably didn't take 24 lectures to make that point, but that's what it was. In any case, after having viewed all 24 sessions, I wonder, really, whether such an approach makes sense at all for a blog writer.
I sit down at my keyboard, thinking, my mind whirling, considering topics, wondering whether the subject matter will interest my readers, becoming anxious, asking myself if such an entry will engage Tahoe Mom, the Boston Pobble, and Fran.
Cumulative syntax has its uses, but it somehow just doesn't seem to fit here.
On our Shasta trip, I wrote about how my passion for photography wasn't what it once was, but how my love for writing had grown.
Here's proof. Every year we do a photo calendar of our travels for friends and family. This year: 8 pictures by Terry, 4 by me. That's the opposite of the first year we started including Terry's pictures.
That says a lot.
When I look at my 2010 photography folder on my computer, it's the leanest in many years. That's not due entirely to the lack of trips we've made so far this year, though that is a factor. Trips or no, I've never hesitated to grab my camera and take pictures of the roses and other flowers in our front and back yards. Or grab my camera on a weekend and head over to the ocean with Terry or to see the falls at Uvas Canyon.
Yet this year my camera has sat in the closet more than it has in a very long time. On our vacation to Lake Shasta this week I found that my passion for taking pictures as we were out and about was nowhere what it once was. Not that I'm giving up photography. Not at all. Terry and I have reservations for an Alaska cruise and rail trip to Denali next spring, and I'll be out there camera in hand. At the same time, I no longer have the burning desire to go out of my way to get that perfect shot.
What I do have is the passion to write the perfect paragraph. I've been a writer all my life. I was writing stories in the second grade. I've been writing something ever since, whether it's been letters, stories, journal entries, essays, software user guides, or this blog.
One of my favorite authors is Paul Theroux. In a book of essays he took on the cliche, "A picture is worth a thousand words." He describes an event he saw in Africa involving wildlife which was complex and took several minutes to unfold. Something that could not be caught in a single photo, but needed to be described in an essay.
So Frans Lanting, DeWitt Jones, and Bob Krist: keep doing what you're doing. I love your work and will continue to subscribe to Outdoor Photographer to see what you have to offer. And Galen Rowell, rest in peace and rise in glory, I admire and love you for all you gave us and still give us in your work.
But for me, for now, my avocation and passion is the writing craft. As Theroux concluded that essay, "A picture is only worth a thousand words or so."
I've been hearing a lot about speech recognition software recently. Originally targeted at individuals with disabilities, both minor such as carpal tunnel and more serious, the manufacturers are now trying to reach a wider market. They are touting the ease of use and the fact that most of us can speak faster than we can type.
I took a look at a couple of those programs and realized that, while at first glance tempting, they wouldn't suit me. What struck me was that speaking and writing are different mental processes for me. When I'm writing this blog at my keyboard I'm thinking one way. When I'm speaking I'm thinking in a different way.
Consider the fact that I've been thinking of doing a video blog on You Tube for a couple of years - ever since I discovered that my laptop came with video recording software. In fact, I'd like to do one simply to bring more people here. As you know I am a regular blogger, but when I think of doing a video blog I can't get engaged.
Maybe at some point. But for now don't expect to see too much of me on You Tube. (And besides, those rambling, incoherent video blogs you find on You Tube ... I don't want to be that.)