“To be miniature is to be swallowed by a miniature whale.”
This is wisdom I gleaned from experience. And when I say gleaned I mean picked up off the ground after the commercial harvesters had come through. This is wisdom nobody much wanted; I surely didn’t. Of course, much wisdom is things we never wanted to know. (Itself an additional piece of wisdom, again demonstrating how discouraging wisdom is.)
Kay Ryan On The Miniature, The Threepenny Review (from here)
Monthly Archives: May 2016
“Have you ever had that experience… a feeling of profound regret after passing some stranger in the street? I’ve had it often. I think to myself, ‘What a delightful looking person!’ or ‘What a beautiful woman!’ or ‘I’ve never seen anyone quite as attractive as that before.’ It happens when I’m just strolling around the streets, or sitting next to a stranger in the theatre or walking down the steps from a concert hall. But once they’ve gone, I know I’ll probably never meet them again in my life… One can’t stop and suddenly speak to a complete stranger, can one? Perhaps that’s life, but when it happens I could die of sadness. I feel somehow drained and empty. I want to follow them to the ends of the earth, but I can’t. The only way to chase a person that way is to kill him.” Yasunari Kawabata, The Lake ( from here )
Writing is problem solving; whether in fiction, biography or memoir, certain basic questions have to be resolved. In biography, at least, a writer leans heavily on materials gathered in research. Working with a trove of documents is constraining, but also in some ways liberating, as working a puzzle is liberating. The clues are in your files, and if you’ve done your job as a researcher, you have the tools to solve the puzzle. But when I turned to memoir — the shamelessly naked core of a writer’s necessary material — I found myself traveling as light as any writer of fiction.
I have never written fiction, and this memoir may be as close as I ever get to it. No more than a biography or a novel is memoir true to life. Because, truly, life is just one damn thing after another. The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve the story. There really is no choice. A reporter of fact is in service to the facts, a eulogist to the family of the dead, but a writer serves the story without apology to competing claims.
This is an attitude that some have characterized as ruthless: that cold detachment, that remove, that allows writers to make a commodity of the lives of others. But a writer who cannot separate herself from her characters and see them within the full spectrum of their human qualities loses everything in a haze of nostalgia and sentimentality. Bathos would do no honor to my subjects nor, most important, bring them to literary life, which is the only way they could live in the world again.
At first I intended to write only one piece, the story of the agonizing last years of my parents’ lives, a five-year period during which I had made some notes. The original version of the story I wrote was about 150 pages long. Everything was in it, but it didn’t work. I hadn’t solved any of the problems that the story demanded. But I was lucky, and eventually a solution came to me.
The right voice in which to tell the story came to me, and when it did, many other things fell into place. And I wound up with a story that is 10 or 12 pages long and yet contains everything I wanted to say. After that first piece, I went on to make a book of stories about my family that I called ”How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories,” without notes this time, with only treacherous memory and a few letters to guide me.
Now you may ask: Just what is the relation of your memoir to the truth?
It is as close as it can be.
The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life — that one damn thing after another — is lost. No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it’s a package made to travel.
Everything that happened is not in my stories; how could it be? Memory is selective, storytelling insists on itself. But there is nothing in my stories that did not happen. In their essence they are true. From here
Elena Ferrante: Writing is an act of pride. I’ve always known that, and so for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing, especially from the people I loved. I was afraid of exposing myself and of others’ disapproval. Jane Austen organized herself so that she could immediately hide her pages if someone came into the room where she had taken refuge. It’s a reaction I’m familiar with: you’re ashamed of your presumptuousness, because there is nothing that can justify it, not even success.
Elena Ferrante interview with Nicola Lagioia, The New Yorker,May 2016
In my mother’s living room, there are shelves upon which she has arranged many beautiful and extraordinary objects. There is glass-ware shot through with cobalt streaks; a tiny, broken robin’s egg; translucent, golden whelks; conch and limpet shells; dessert plates painstakingly painted as the peacock’s splendid tail; wild branches of sun- and salt-bleached coral; sea fans dried in the course of their undulation; polished stones of all colors; and a dozen egg-shaped stones of different hues and sizes nesting in a Styrofoam egg carton. My mother calls them ‘the shelves’, the objects perhaps ‘treasures’. I call the six shelves together an altar where her intuitive and artful arrangement divines power: the power of beauty itself; the power of precious objects put together to add up to more than their mere sum; the power of the stories behind each object; the power of a family and those who have blessed them and their home. Those shelves may be the presentation piece of the living-room and our family’s home, but my mother alone arranged them; they speak of her aesthetic and her eye – an aesthetic made collective as it speaks for my family to announce that this is our home, sacred and beautiful. The living-room is where she reveals who we are. . .. .
. . . .
The living-room is a presentational space but at the same time, a private one. Within a home it is also a “not” space: not the bedroom, or the bathroom, or the kitchen, which is to say, the space where you do the things that are not done in those other spaces. .”
Elizabeth Alexander Toward the Black Interior.
[ after the ordeal of IVF treatment]
‘What I try to hold onto – now the treatment has failed – is a commitment to love widely and intensely. Tenderly. In ways I would not have preciously expected. I to You; I to We; I to This. To unshackle my love from the great love I wanted to give my own child.
After the avalanche, the bare face of the mountain.
Under the sun and the moon.’
Julia Leigh Avalanche (see review here)
The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there. Patti Smith
My baby, I have read, has a tail
and a spine made of pearls,
and every day I speak to her in tongues.
From Gravitas, by Elizabeth Alexander
I have been aware, as I write this autobiography, of a feeling of boredom with the project. My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful. My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. To these people I have been a kind of amanuensis : they have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now. . . .
If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself. Like Rousseau, who wrote (at the beginning of his novelistic Confessions) that “I am not made like anyone I have ever been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” he must sustain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the illusion of his preternatural extraordinariness. . . .
Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. The observing “I” of autobiography tells the story of the observed “I” not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might. The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins.
“[Director] Graham Blundell once wrote about me said no-one does ordinary and vulnerable like Noni Hazlehurst. “But then I thought it’s okay, because in fact we’re all vulnerable and we’re all ordinary. Although, a lot of our energy is spent trying to prove the opposite.”
Noni Hazlehurst , acceptance speech, induction into the Hall of Fame. May 2016 (from here)