Essays and Memoirs
One Way It Happens Print E-mail

decnight 11(Brevity #41 January 12, 2013)

That first heart attack, which begins while I’m teaching a writing class, has the virginal peculiarity of my

(a) not knowing what a heart attack is since I’ve never had one, which is true;

(b) running to the bathroom to crap whatever it is out of my system, which doesn’t work;

(c) believing prior to, but more important, during the attack, that were I ever to have one as my father and brother had I would fall to and writhe on the ground in pain, pound my chest with clenched fist, stare up at a circle of people and their tortured regard, a man with a fedora and a woman with an umbrella, whispering, “What’s wrong with him?” until someone calls an ambulance and I am saved, a fate I’ve managed to escape just now;

(d) excusing myself to a dozen stunned students, driving to a hospital three minutes away, dreading the attack would worsen en route, my heart ballooning and popping, my chest exploding, which the longer it’s forestalled makes me certain it will occur;

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After Many a Summer Still Writing My Parents Print E-mail

size1(Michael Steinberg's Blog November 28, 2012)

When I began life-writing in earnest, in the early 1990s, I turned to my dead father—my first, natural subject. Why first? Why natural? In a word, access. Our intimacy was special, almost motherly on his part; better yet, it was still on my skin. I listed a dozen moments I had with him as a boy in which he transferred some male potency, sorrow stirred with wisdom, to me. I wrote many of these episodes quickly, discovering that this skin-activated memory, attuned more to a felt frequency than any consequential event, had kept our relationship wired and alive.

Those several episodes, time-stopping, lingered like a burn—his scratchy-glancing kiss goodnight; his smell of Aqua Velva, soap, and coffee; his telling me I was, of his three sons, his favorite, though my older and younger brothers, reading my work or hearing me talk much later, disagree. Teaching memoir, how often I have demonstrated memory’s rash—stroking my arm and saying, "I can still feel him/his touch on my body. He’s right here."

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The Shifting Self Print E-mail

oxam_78(Oxford American Issue 78: August, 2012)

Seven months before September 11, Donald Morrill and his wife, Lisa, endured an invasion and robbery in their Tampa, Florida, residence. Their assailant held them naked for twenty minutes during which they were threatened, humiliated, and locked in the bathroom. Their car was stolen, and the culprit was never caught.

In a ninety-nine-page book, The Untouched Minutes, which won the 2004 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, Morrill mingles the story of the assault with other violent incidents of that and the following two years: the September 11 attacks, the anthrax scare and murders, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the stabbing deaths of two Dartmouth professors, Half and Susanne Zantop. In the same week that Don and Lisa were terrorized, the Zantops were killed so that two teenage boys could afford a trip to Australia. Their murder runs as a counter-theme throughout Morrill's book, suggesting a horror that might have been, which he and his wife escaped.

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Music, Memory, and Prose: On Joan Didion's Memoirs Print E-mail

joan-didion(Puerto del Sol Volume 47, No. 1: Summer, 2012)

1)

With the 2003 publication of Where I Was From, Joan Didion began what may be the final phase of her fifty-year-plus writing career—the first of three memoirs, a loose trilogy centering on geographical exile and personal loss that reveal a master composer of prose. Close behind Where I Was From came The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Then, at the end of 2011, Blue Nights. This decade-long memoir period caps a Leonard-Bernstein-like run with Didion scoring several hits among a host of genre, each of which overlaps. There's the novel phase: five books, published between 1963 and 1996, among them Play It As It Lays. There's the nonfiction phase: six books, several of which are essay collections, beginning in 1968 with Slouching Toward Bethlehem and ending with Political Fictions in 2001.

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The Multihyphenated Author Print E-mail

02 invisible-city1988twelvetress-press topcarousselportrait(Hippocampus Magazine May 2012)

Scrolling through Yahoo’s online finance page, I stumble on this purple headline: “A U.S. Debt Crisis Is On Its Way.” The article is by the British economist and Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson. I have not read his books but have savored his analysis in the New York Review of Books and in a few podcasts. (In early 2011, Ferguson was picked by Tina Brown for a weekly column in the new Newsweek.) He’s a smart guy. His view, like that of Paul Krugman, I trust, though I also admire the gloom of this article’s title—I’ve been looking for such negativity of late to help me rationalize why I’m trying to get out of the stock market: post-bailout, mid-recession, pre-crisis, wherever-we-are.

I click on the link and up pops three short paragraphs, nestled in the middle of a page surrounded by marauding ads, typographically foxy: “Buffet’s Latest Pick.” “Buzz.” “Our Premium Membership.” To the left of the graphs and the graphics is a headshot of Ferguson, which suggests a video, perhaps of the same material, repackaged into a live or recorded interview.

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Your Brain on Nonfiction Print E-mail

IMG 0187(Richard Gilbert's Blog March 27, 2012)

In a recent New York Times essay, “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul argues that “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica” to “construct a map of other people’s intentions.” Research suggests that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Narratives make us better people. I’m open to that. I do agree reading fiction is a pleasure as well as socially instructive. And, it seems, neuroscience confirms it. But why only study novel-reading and then moralize it, like eating your spinach, into preferential behavior?

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Disenthralled: An End to My Heart Disease Print E-mail

RT 13.2(River Teeth Volume 13.2 Spring 2012)

[Note: This 2012 publication carries some of the initial material for what became The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease. This essay explores areas I didn't follow up on, with the book, and, thus, is quite different from the memoir.]

You Were Dying

You have to love this line from the Abbott Labs pamphlet on coronary artery disease, one of the parting gifts the charge nurse presents to you after you’ve had a heart attack: “The first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.” It’s among a flurry of statements about your condition, which, even though it’s only now materialized, you realize you’ve always had. Had you died, you would have had none of the secondary symptoms like agonizing chest pain and claustrophobic fear. But thanks to the cath lab and the cardiologists and your good fortune to be only a mile from the hospital, you didn’t die. You’re still kicking, albeit pinned between “it’s here” and “what do I do next?” One thing’s certain: you’ve been returned to your sense of wonder, now more sharply teleological than ever. The unanswerable questions start to queue. Is it possible to move before the bullet’s impact? Halfway from the bridge to the water, will your regret reverse the plunge? (Shouldn’t it be the first symptom of suicide is sudden death?) These indirections, which you haven’t had the luxury of contending with until now, initiate you into a new drama, the comedy of blood. You awake to the patient’s lot, which is to face (or not) this conundrum: as the language of treatment and recovery, of advice and afterthought, of lyric and lament claims to embody the disease, the disease, living on in you, articulates something else entirely.

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