This passage from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001) feels so important that I can’t resist quoting it at length. The book discusses the personal essayist’s need to create a persona who can speak the truth at the heart of that particular story. Here Gornick uses her own experience to illustrate:
I set out to write a memoir about my mother, myself, and a woman who lived next door to us when I was a child. Here, for the first time, I struggled to isolate the story from the situation; here I taught myself what a persona is; and here I began to figure out what they all had to do with one another.
This story–the one about my mother, myself, and the woman next door–was based on an early insight I’d had that these two women between them had made me a woman. Each had been widowed young, each had fallen into despair; one devoted the rest of her life to the worship of lost love, the other became the Whore of Babylon. No matter. In each case the lesson being taught was that a man was the most important thing in a woman’s life. I hated the lesson from early on, had resolved to get out and leave both it and the women behind. I did get out, but as time went on I discovered that I couldn’t leave any of it behind. Especially not the women. Most especially not my mother. I had determined to separate myself from her theatrical self-absorption, but now, as the years accumulated, I saw that my hot-tempered and cutting ways were, indeed, only another version of her needy dramatics. I saw further that for both of us the self-dramatization was a substitute for action: a piece of Chekhovian unresolve raging in me as well as her. It flashed on me that I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother.
This was the story I wanted to tell without sentiment or cynicism; the one I thought justified speaking hard truths. The flash of insight I’d had–that I could not leave my mother because I’d become my mother–was my wisdom: a tale of psychological embroilment I wanted badly to trace out.
To tell that tale, I soon discovered, I had to find the right tone of voice; the one I habitually lived with wouldn’t do at all: it whined, it grated, it accused; above all, it accused. Then there was the matter of syntax: my own ordinary, everyday sentence–fragmented, interjecting, overriding–also wouldn’t do; it had to be altered, modified, brought under control. And then I could see, this as soon as I began writing, that I needed 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. In short, a useful point of view, one that would permit greater freedom of association–for that of course is what I have been describing–had to be brought along. What I didn’t see, and that for a long while, was that this point of view could only emerge from a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.
I began to correct for myself. The process was slow, painful, and, to my surprise, riddled with crippling self-doubt. I found a diary I had kept one summer ten years earlier; it contained information that I knew I could use. I opened the diary eagerly but soon turned away from it, stricken. The writing was soaked in a kind of girlish self-pity–“alone again!”–that I found odious. More than odious, threatening. As I read on, I felt myself being sucked back into its atmosphere, unable to hold on to the speaking voice I was working hard to develop. I threw the diary down in a panic, then felt confused and defeated. …
One day–when I had been looking over an accumulation of pages possessed of what seemed to me the sufficiently right tone, syntax, and perspective–I opened the diary again, read in it a bit, laughed, got interested, even absorbed, and within minutes was making notes. With relief I thought, I’m not losing myself. Suddenly I realized there was no myself to lose. I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me. The narrator was the me who could not leave her mother because she had become her mother. She was not intimidated by “alone again.” Nor, come to think of it, was she much influenced by the me who was a walker in the city, or a divorced middle-aged feminist, or a financially insecure writer. She was, apparently, only her solid, limited self–and she was in control. I saw what I had done: I had created a persona.
Devotion to this narrator–this persona–became, while I was writing the book, an absorption that in time went unequaled. I longed each day to meet up again with her, this other one telling the story that I alone–in my everyday person–would not have been able to tell. I could hardly believe my luck in having found her (that’s what it felt like, luck). It was not only that I admired her style, her generosity, her detachment–such a respite from the me that was me!–she had become the instrument of my illumination.
Lovely piece in the New York Times Book Review by children’s book author Pseudonymous Bosch. Both funny and serious. Here’s a bit from the funny part:
Pseudonymous Bosch makes a big fuss about hiding from his readers as well as from his enemies. He variously claims to be holing up in the jungle or living in an igloo in Greenland. Nonetheless, my daring double manages to make himself accessible via email, and sometimes even ventures out into public with his signature sunglasses and the occasional fake beard. What’s his favorite book? “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” of course. Does he have any pets? Yes, his rabbit secretary, Quiche. He’s the one typing this letter. Whereas I might feel uncomfortable responding, Bosch always has answers at the ready.
No doubt my mind would be a more orderly place if I started every day with a passage from Henry James. Here’s a bit that struck me in The Europeans (1878):
Felix had a confident, gaily trenchant way of judging human actions which Mr Wentworth grew little by little to envy; it seemed like criticism made easy. Forming an opinion–say on a person’s conduct–was with Mr Wentworth a good deal like fumbling in a lock with a key chosen at hazard. He seemed to himself to go about the world with a big bunch of these ineffectual instruments at his girdle. His nephew, on the other hand, with a single turn of the wrist, opened any door as adroitly as a house thief.
So many aspects of my Real Life are difficult or impossible to control (clutter, e-mail, cats, time), but here in this virtual space I can cultivate a certain degree of minimalism. I find that very soothing.
Recently, in a search for even greater virtual minimalism, I considered switching to a more stripped-down Wordpress theme, and I researched several possibilities. I was especially impressed by Ponder, a free theme from the multitalented Paul Jarvis. Clean, stylish, and understated, it lets the text stand on its own.
I did try it out, but in the end, I decided against Ponder for a couple of reasons: First, the control freak in me just couldn’t relinquish all customizability (I like to choose my fonts, for example, and I’m partial to serifs). And second, I wasn’t quite ready to give up comments.
I still aspire to Ponder-level focus, but I’m not there yet.
In my youth, I attended a small but ambitious all-girls prep school whose mantra was “Be Well-Rounded.”
And that didn’t mean a broad liberal arts education, to include science, math, literature, languages (both alive and “dead”), music, art, etc. (The course requirements took care of all that.) No, academic achievement was not nearly enough. According to the school, colleges–and, by extension, the world–would not find us interesting unless we also excelled in a wide variety of social, athletic, pseudo-religious, and fundraising endeavors.
Well-rounded: I quickly grew to despise the term, which turned out to mean that tall girls should play basketball whether they wanted to or not, that a skill or talent did not count unless it could be incorporated into a team, that a student’s achievements (whether intellectual or athletic) belonged not to her but to the school.
Furthermore, the school’s argument about what “the world” demanded always struck me as laughable at best. Surely the world needed, for example, hard-working scientists more than it needed mediocre singing gymnasts.
So it was with happy fellow-feeling that I encountered this piece of advice, from Austin Kleon’s friendly little book Steal Like an Artist:
Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
I agree wholeheartedly. And I am nothing if not boring. So finally, something I’m doing right!
But then I read this piece by Chad Gervich, author of How to Manage Your Agent: A Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Representation. What do agents look for in a screenwriter? Gervich lists nine things: first, great screenwriting samples; second, a good attitude. But what’s third?
Interesting life experience
Here we go again. Be interesting. But more to the point, agents will not want to represent your writing unless your life is interesting.
But why should a screenwriter’s life be interesting? In order to be a writer (screen- or otherwise), a person has to spend a lot of time sitting, usually quietly, and thinking, usually in front of a notebook or computer screen or blank wall. And in those many long stretches of time, it no doubt looks, to the average outside observer, as though the writer is doing nothing at all. Just sitting. Pretty boring.
But that’s exactly what mental work looks like from the outside.
My life doesn’t need to be interesting to anyone other than myself. With luck, the products of my imagination might be interesting to someone else, however. With hard work, perhaps my writing will be interesting.
But in order to get any of that work done, I’m going to have to be boring.
Thought for the day, from The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg (translated by Dick Davis):
As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.
Personally, I have an advanced degree in Caution. Is it too late to go back and take Courage 101?
In this fascinating Chicago Tribune piece, Yale law professor Stephen Carter talks to Blakey Vermeule of Stanford University, a professor of English and author of the book Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?
There Vermeule combines cognitive theory, history, social psychology and a touch of Darwin to suggest that without fiction, we would have trouble making sense of the world. Narratives bring order to what we see around us, and characters put faces to what we learn. …
“I think this widespread fascination with fantasy shows that we do not in fact live in a secular age, rather we live rather amazingly in an age of shimmering enchantments, of heroes and villains and Gods and monsters.”
She’s noticed, in other words, that fandom’s deepest engagement seems to be with characters facing zombies and Sith Lords. She adds: “That these worlds are fictional and that we know them to be fictional is quite beside the point: the human brain is extremely easily fooled into believing things are true, often viscerally, even when we know in some rational sense that they are not.” …
“Fiction makers have gotten astonishingly good at defeating our rational override switch.”
They can pull this off, says Vermeule, because their creations “prime some deep religious intuitions and give them a habitation in a world that has grown so deeply skeptical and materialistic and wary of ideals.”
In her book, Vermeule contends that even stories we know to be invented help fulfill a need for narrative connection that may be wired into us. We can understand the world better when we can embed its various characteristics in a tale. But the tale, to work, has to offer personification. This was true in the days of ancient myth and is true now. It may be that our identification with the characters leads us to believe we’re on the track of important truths.
So in our encounters with fiction, we’re nevertheless searchers. We spend emotional energy on characters because we can pursue these deep truths even if they’re absent from our reality.
There is something common to everything we call the arts. What is it? It’s not aesthetics. I’ve seen a squatting guy at a Minnesota ‘Renaissance Faire’ perform Romeo and Juliet using a cigarette butt and a bottle cap for the main characters, and I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet performed by Shakespearean actors in full period costume, and both times this ‘it’ I’m talking about was there. This ancient ‘it’ is something I call ‘an image.’ By image I don’t mean a visual representation, I mean something that is more like a ghost than a picture; something which feels somehow alive, has no fixed meaning and is contained and transported by something that is not alive–a book, a song, a painting–anything we call an ‘art form.’ Images are also contained by certain objects that young children become deeply attached to, like a certain blanket a certain child can’t stand to be without. How is a piece of cloth transformed into something so directly tied to a child’s sense of well-being that if it’s missing, the child can’t sleep? The blanket has come to contain something the child interacts with as if it were alive. How did this ‘it’ come to be located in the blanket? How was it put there? Why do we have an innate ability to have a sustained and interactive relationship with an object/image well before we are able to speak? What kind of interaction is taking place?
— Lynda Barry, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
The other day my favorite client offered me a new editing project. I’ve worked with this organization on a regular basis for almost fifteen years, and I currently have more than a year’s schedule of deadlines for one of their ongoing projects already on my calendar. But once in a while something extra comes up.
Sometimes my contact’s department gets overbooked. Sometimes another department hands her a big project she doesn’t have time for. Sometimes someone else in the organization asks her to recommend a freelancer.
And whatever they need, I will help if I possibly can. This organization is everything I love in a client.
Take this new project, for example: a “heavy copyedit” of about 150 pages. I ask, What’s the timetable? The client had the schedule set up well in advance, so they know exactly how much time they can give me to do my part. As usual, the turnaround time is very reasonable. Yay!
Is there a style sheet? My contact immediately e-mails me a two-page document detailing the preferred treatment of a host of style issues particular to this project. (In addition, I will refer frequently to the organization’s substantial in-house style guide.) Ha!
The style sheet brings me to what I love most about this client: they insist that everything they publish be well written, consistent, accurate, grammatically correct, and stylistically professional. Every one of their projects goes through multiple levels of editing. They like and appreciate editors! They believe in proofreading!
All right, I’ll stop gushing and go look for dangling modifiers…
(And you were worried that a blog by a hermit would be nothing but one snarky pet peeve after another. Ahem, that said, do NOT get me started on the subject of Spell Check.)
Being a hermit at heart, I am unsuited to a great many careers.
In college I claimed I was going to be an English professor, but that plan was probably just an excuse to go to graduate school.
In graduate school I learned that I did not want to be an English professor. But in the course of various part-time library jobs, I discovered a new career goal: I wanted to sit in the basement of a large research library and type card-catalogue cards. (I still think fondly of that dream job in moments of stress.)
Then, in the back of one of his books, I read that the pseudonymous poet John Bricuth “lives in seclusion.” (Lightbulb!) It sounded so marvelous, living in seclusion. From that moment I aspired to be a pseudonymous author…
(Unbeknownst to me, that card-catalogue-typing job was about to be eliminated by the advent of the computer anyway.)
I am a reader, writer, editor, recovering academic, office supply addict, hermit at heart, and what Brian Clark calls a “committed unemployable.” (And I do, in fact, live in the desert.)
I am not a misanthrope (not really), an agoraphobic, a survivalist, a Luddite, or a hoarder (I hope).
Some days I’m just a crab.