Essays and Memoirs
Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs Print E-mail

Triumph_of_Death_BruegelNew English Review July 2009)


Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is the claim every storyteller is admonished to believe. What our ten-thousand-year-old tale-telling tradition (most of it oral) instructs us to do is to be good dramatists and let the story have its sway. This law of the tale, and our drama-loving DNA, is why the Bible has survived so long: its well-told stories were the means by which its morally sound messages were delivered and, tellers and scribes hoped, stuck. When disputes about a story’s authenticity arose, the Bible authors were less keen to preserve history or embrace veracity. Instead they made the drama central, via legend, fantasy, parable, and the fictionalized life, based on Egyptian mythology, of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a work of narrative literature and a work of fiction. But, the problem is, its fiction has almost always been thought of as fact.

A New Kind of Narrative Truth Print E-mail

A New Kind of Narrative Truth, by Thomas Larson(Book Review, Special Issue on "Memoir Now," March/April 2009, Volume 30, No. 3)

Lately, I’ve been brooding on the word remember whose mystery for the memoirist is all-important. From the late Latin, the word originally meant "to call to mind" or "to be mindful," implying a mind full of what it’s been called to. Breaking it down further, we trace the re in remember to the Latin ablative of res, which means from a thing, object, or circumstance, the re also referring to repetition. Then there’s member, which comes from the Latin membrum, as in "part." Remember may mean one’s mindfulness of the past and one’s putting the parts of a past circumstance together through repetitious recall—that ever-occurring now in which we brood over past events again and again.

When I re-member an incident, I re-assemble its parts—the elements of what happened and the times I’ve recalled it. That which I recall one hundred times is much different than that which I recollect once. For deep memories, the parts I re-assemble are themselves re-assemblages of parts already assembled. It would seem then that the nature of memory is equally creative, constructive, and confusing. How is a memory composed of a single past experience as well as the piled-up/piled-on memories of that experience?

The rest of this essay is available as an eBook: What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir, $2.99.

The Perennial Question of Existence Print E-mail

St._Cecilia_Guido_Reni(Written 2005 - 2009)

How perfectly alone I felt that Labor Day weekend, 1972, staying at the YMCA in Madison, Wisconsin, getting ready, after a two-year hiatus, to reenter college. I had a tiny room, maybe ten by ten, a bed, a desk. I’d paid extra for the privacy. I loved the solitude: no parents, no job, no girlfriend. Never before was I so alone—and never since. I’d rise at dawn, sit in the straight-back chair at the desk with two drawers; it reminded me of the varnished desk and the blotter pad on top where I did my homework as a kid in Ohio. At the Y, I’d work through the morning. The heat slowly built until the brown-brick tiles radiated steam like a sauna. By noon, I was cooked and I’d go for a swim in Lake Mendota. Back at my desk, my guitar would be on my lap, my writing journal open before me. My attentions would alternate. Either I noted down the rough cut of a song, chords and lyrics, or I sketched in prose my latest anxiety, trying to say exactly what it was I was after by re-enrolling, this time at the University of Wisconsin. A home? A direction? A career? Those queries voiced in words alone only intensified what I couldn’t answer. Eventually my fingers dropped the pen and I picked up the guitar. As I played, my worry lessened, then dissolved.

Identity Crisis: What Is a Memoir Anyway? Print E-mail

Avery-Girl-Writing(Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction Winter 2009)

A writer friend is telling me about an agent who phoned the other day. "She got right to the point," my friend says. "‘I’m sorry,’ the agent said, ‘but we won’t be representing your manuscript.’" ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s a memoir, and a memoir has to read like a novel.’ ‘It does?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ the agent said. ‘It does.’ ‘And who says so?’ ‘The market says so,’ she replied. ‘And yours, I’m sorry to say, is not there yet.’"

My friend shrugs; it’s early in the rejection game so she’s not sure how to react. In support, I tell her that agents often don’t know what they want. Their deferring to "the market" makes their rejecting you stomachable. It’s tough, I say, selling a book about yourself when your self is unknown. A celebrity has it easy. Her face is already a contract.

The Self-Reliant Classicist: An Introduction to the Art of John Abel Print E-mail

war-criminals(San Diego Art Institute Press December 2008)

Finally, at what may be the early late middle stage of John Abel’s career, we have, with his show at Earl & Birdie Taylor Library in Pacific Beach, thirty years’ worth of the fifty-three-year-old’s paintings, drawings, and graphics. And what a magnificent catalog of Abel’s oeuvre the San Diego Art Institute press has published—the incisive work of a caricaturist, draftsman, and painter whose discipline is classical, expressionistic, and pugnaciously self-confident.

At UC Riverside in the 1970s, one professor’s masturbatory mania for conceptual art made him angry and quit. (Abel still disdains any art that avoids the time-tested strategies of beauty, composition, and meaning.) Wandering out of academe for good and rediscovering Drucker, he found his calling as a commercial illustrator. From 1984 to 1994, he did hundreds of assignments for weekly rags among them the San Diego Reader. Until one day the phone rang and he was told his skill was passe: they were going digital.

Beguiled By Mozart's Image Print E-mail

Krafft(Cadillac Cicatrix Issue 2.0, Winter, 2008)

In 1819, an unknown artist, Barbara Krafft, painted what has become the most recognizable and beloved image of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that exists. Commissioned by Joseph Sonnleithner to hang in the newly opened Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music), a conservatory in Vienna, Krafft's posthumous oil painting is based on (some say plagiarized from) another painting, The Mozart Family, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, a work in possession of Mozart's sister, Nannerl. (Among the other few renderings are Mozart at seven and fourteen, in which he's portrayed as a pasty aristocrat; there are facial profiles as a boxwood medallion and a silhouette.) In the Croce work, dated 1780-81, Nannerl and Wolfgang are playing, perhaps improvising, a duet at the piano; the father, Leopold, is holding a violin and looking on; and the scene is countenanced by a trophy-head-like portrait of the composer's mother, Anna Maria, who died in 1778. In 1781, Mozart would have been 25; he would have just married Constanze and premiered his first opera seria, Idomeneo.

Mrs. Wright's Bookshop Print E-mail

bookshop(New Letters Volume 74, No. 3. Summer 2008. First-place tie with Kim Addonizio in New Letters’ Readers Award for the Essay, 2007-2008.)

It was over, Mrs. Wright’s reign. I heard the bell clang above the front door, just before Mrs. Auburn, the principled clerk, called my name at the top of the stairs. In the basement, I’d been unpacking boxes, Bantam paperbacks, this batch, the four J. D. Salinger books, two covers white, one gold, and one that dark existential red, the title in gold letters, our big seller. I hurried up the steps from paperbacks to hardbacks, and there was Mrs. Wright, earlier than usual, keeping her word. The windowed door was shut, and the sign’s OPEN side now faced in. Her Chrysler idled out front. It must have been late morning, and late in the summer, too, near Labor Day.

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