Memoir has emerged as a liberated species—breaking its own rules so repeatedly that there are now no rules except (for purists) to tell the truth and (for everyone else) to foil narcissism. The memoirist’s page is malleable. The memoirist’s frame endlessly shatters. There are plenty of examples, but I like these: Joan Wickersham built The Suicide Index out of shifting perspectives, drawing on fiction, even, when she could not explain her father’s self-destruction. Maggie Nelson offered 240 numbered, jostled, jostling, perhaps not seamless blue-tinted paragraphs in Bluets. Darin Strauss delivered Half a Life with many half white pages. Mark Richard wrote his House of Prayer No. 2 in second person, save for an opening gambit in mostly third. Terry Tempest Williams, in When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, yielded, to the reader, many consecutive pages of white, white, white—in imitation of her own mother’s blank journals—before she went on to meditate about voice, but not in any programmatic order. Sarah Manguso stitched Ongoingness: The End of a Diary out of the piecemeal fabric of obsession. Heidi Julavits constructed The Folded Clock as a diary whose pages have been shuffled—a diary out of sequence. Jeannie Vanasco forged The Glass Eye out of “several color-coded binders labeled ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Jeanne,’ and ‘Mental Illness.’” And in Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, Beth Ann Fennelly compiled a scrapbook of small thoughts and big—a slender book of sometimes one-page flicks on topics like married love and children. Life is iterative. Memoir is. No two stories can be the same true stories. And while it might seem today that all of this is obvious, that memoir must be plastic, it actually wasn’t nearly as obvious 18 years ago when Abigail Thomas—a writer known for her fiction, a woman known for her wit—published a collection of true stories called Safekeeping. It wasn’t a usual true-story book. It was declined, Thomas has said, by many a publishing house. There was, to begin with, no “after that happened, then this.” There was no pronouncement of a thesis. There wasn’t even a profusion of I’s (there were far more shes), and though the whole thing seemed casual enough—no footnotes, no pretense, no unforsaken woe—the casual had been run through an intensifying rinse. These pages read like poems, but there were no line breaks. These lines kicked as if they’d been enjambed, but where were the enjambments? Instead there was the hard knock of nouns. The slide of simple accountings. Sleight-of-hand suspense. A division into thirds, by which I mean sections titled “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” Meditations on, well, married love and children. Thomas could make you think that she was just delivering the facts of her life—three kids before the age of 26, three marriages, grief, passing conversations with a sister—as they occurred to her, but no. She was arranging them. The book’s first paragraph suspends time and keeps it suspended so that time becomes everything that might have been and the things that actually were, what never came to pass and what hasn’t happened yet. It’s a magic trick. There’s a white bird, winging: Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola. I played Music from Big Pink over and over. “Tears of Rage.” “The Weight.” Wheels of Fire. I had three kids. We ate on the overturned kitchen drawer because I didn’t have a table. I was young. I didn’t know what things could happen. I spent my time in the moment; everything else was shoved ahead, like furniture I didn’t need yet. We were crammed into a small space. My bed was in the living room. Safekeeping sidesteps the blunt force of a directed narrative. It’s happenstance, with a purpose. The reader has to pay attention. On a page titled “Tomorrow,” it has been, Thomas writes in first person, a year since her second husband died—the husband she loved best when they were no longer married but (somehow) friends. On the next page, titled “Witness to His Life,” this second husband is remembered as alive, a first-person remembering about a restaurant. Next we have “When He Told Her,” which recalls the time this second husband was, again, alive, but relating the news of his cancer. “When He Told Her” is a third-person remembrance. It would silence the author, we sense, if the chosen pronoun were an I. Its opening line: “She didn’t really believe it, not really, not in her heart of hearts.” We don’t understand our earlier selves, or we fear them, or we miss them, or we idolize the choices they didn’t make. In Safekeeping, Thomas’s earlier self is often a third-person self, because it’s often a truer true story that way. And when the truth cannot even be guessed at, it is not guessed at. Safekeeping, then, is also a book of blank spaces, an emptiness between micro-fullness. Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard and other autobiographical inclusionists notwithstanding, memoir making is all about the needle and the thread, the patchwork and the patches, the careful stitchery. Memoir making is as much about how we remember as what we remember, and there’s no better exemplar of that fact, now or then, to my way of thinking, than Thomas’s Safekeeping and the two subsequent, equally brilliant Thomas memoirs: A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It. [millions_ad] This isn’t to suggest, of course, that previous memoirists have not played, for example, with point of view. Bell hooks, for example, announces her methodology right up front in her memoir of childhood, Bone Black: Laying out the groundwork of my early life like a crazy quilt, Bone Black brings together fragments to make a whole. Bits and pieces connect in a random and playfully irrational way. And there is always the persistence of repetition, for that is what the mind does—goes over and over the same things looking at them in different ways. The prevailing perspective is always that of the intuitive and critically thinking child mind. Sometimes memories are presented in third person, indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance. But Bone Black is a childhood story, with a more or less chronological through line. Safekeeping, with its drifting time and shifting moods and searing gentleness, is un-diagrammable, self-forgiving. Reading Safekeeping is like reading Carole Maso’s AVA, a morning, afternoon, and night novel that ticks out the last-day memories of a dying 39-year-old professor of comparative lit. AVA stacks impressions, one upon the other. The sequenced lines are tethered to nothing but lifting desire: Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints’ days. Even when we were poor. With verve. Come sit in the morning garden for awhile. Olives hang like earrings in late August. It’s up to the reader of AVA to fill in the blanks. It’s up to Thomas’s readers, too. We are forced to be smarter than we are. Safekeeping is scrapbook and seam. It is ephemera if words can be called ephemera. It is wisdom without the baggage of authority. “Like most power it was utterly real and utterly illusory,” Thomas writes toward the end, about her younger, beautiful self. “But she spent the next forty years with her eye on who was looking back. This didn’t get in her way. It was her way. Her ambition was to be desired. Now it’s over and what a relief. Finally she can get some work done.” Abigail Thomas placed her unassuming trust in her own ideas about linearity and urgency, dodge and confession, frame and voice, and maybe she didn’t know at first what she was making, but she made it anyway. Her words were her needle. Her life was her thread. Some of her stitches looped and some of them frayed and sometimes there was a break in the pattern. Life’s like this, Thomas instructed. Life is everything. Life can be made and it can be unmade, too. Go on, she said. You try it. She unbuttoned a button. She unbuttoned another. We grew less and less encumbered.
It’s been 18 years since Alyson Hagy and I both won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nested within the list of grantees was a scattering of addresses. I wrote to Alyson. She answered. We’ve seen each other just twice in all these years. Our correspondence is legion. “I'm buried in a fat, loosely written Minette Walter crime novel just now,” she’ll write. “But Alice Munro and Madison Bell are next.” Or “I’m going to have to tweak the dramatic arc of the book in a significant way, but I think it’s the right way to go.” Or, “We have had a little cold rain here, and the skies have been huge and glowering—enough to tinge the aspens in town just a little.” Her notes are like miniature novellas. Her gifts—shells, cards, carved stones—populate my windowsills. Her emoji choices can be quite hysterical, and once the sound of her voice on the phone insta-cured a migraine. When an Alyson Hagy book makes its way into the world (Ghosts of Wyoming; Snow, Ashes; Keeneland; Graveyard of the Atlantic; others), I try not to read too fast, for I know that with all the other things Alyson does in the world—her teaching and leadership at the University of Wyoming, her hiking and fishing, her tennis and travel—it will be too long before the next new Alyson Hagy comes my way. A few weeks ago, Alyson’s new book, Scribe (Graywolf Press, October), arrived. I read this slender novel while storms pummeled the lily lake near a vacation cottage and before Kirkus, in its starred review, called it an “affecting powerhouse.” Rooted in Alyson’s Appalachia and yet otherworldly, bound by symbols and held just slightly out of time, Scribe is a storyteller’s book about the radical power and responsibility of words. It’s about a woman who believes she has nothing to offer but the words she can put on a page, and about those who ask for the favor. It’s about dogs, too, and tribal politics in a bartering culture. It’s about power and who wields it and who loses it, too. I asked her questions. The Millions: In a leaking red pen that has left my fingers looking bloody I began to circle all the places smell becomes story in your book: “the peppery scent of her best ink,” “the torched scent of sugar,” “the air-burned hints of lightning.” Why does that sense become so crucial in Scribe? I guess I can’t help but think about how dogs come to understand and navigate the world, and how large a role they play in your book. Is it the same for these characters? That they smell their way toward knowing? Alyson Hagy: I suspect smell is vivid in Scribe because the story is set on the farm where I grew up, and I experienced that world as smell and sound as much as sight when I was a child. My parents and neighbors were extremely attentive to the natural world and how it expressed itself. They marked the arrival and departure of birds. They read their gardens and their fruit trees as if they were books. They knew what the neighbors were up to—harvesting, burning, fertilizing—based on smoke or stink or sweetness. I’m lucky I grew up around such attentiveness. I’ve also lived with dogs my whole life. There is nothing like watching animals navigate the world to remind you what you’re missing. Being with animals makes real how many layers there are to the world—layers that aren’t visible but are true and essential. Dogs do smell stories. And they hear them, too. I am probably more obsessed with that kind of “story radar” than I realize. TM: There are circles of evil in this book and circles of redemption. A rise and fall and meshing. Did you map these deliberately as you wrote? And does redemption always necessarily win in story? AH: I didn’t map much of anything when I was writing Scribe, not until I tried to balance a few things out in later edits. The idea for the novel came to me in a flash as I was driving from Charlottesville, Virginia, to my home in Franklin County on the back roads. That country is beautiful and verdant and littered with the remnants of small family farms. People could live there sustainably again if they had to. So I began to wonder what the post-Civil War barter culture must have been like—and what might happen to women who didn’t have a practical skill or trade in an economy like that. I immediately imagined a woman who had nothing to trade but her literacy. I saw her as both mysterious, because of her power with words, and vulnerable. Redemption does not always win out in stories. And it shouldn’t. I’ve tried to write about the costs of belief in books like Boleto and Snow, Ashes. I wanted Scribe to be a tale right from the get-go, something that reflects the inventiveness and mystery of the stories I grew up hearing, those Appalachian remnants. A lot of the strangest tales I absorbed as a child come from the Christian Bible. Evil and redemption are big things in rural brands of Christianity. So I probably plugged directly into those rhythms without even thinking about it much. I didn’t know what the scribe would find at the end of her journey until late in the first draft of the novel. The work of other tale-tellers definitely hovers behind Scribe, too, books like The Long Home by William Gay and almost anything by Louise Erdrich. TM: The sections are brilliantly labeled as the parts of a letter. Did the section titles come first or the story? In other words, did the titles bind you, shape your imagination, or did you discover that superstructure only in the wake of early drafting? AH: The first working title for the book was The Letter Writer, and the word “Salutations” came to me almost right away. It was a blast from the past, from the days when girls at my high school took Typing (I kid you not) and boys took Shop Class. Anyhow, as I recalled the parts of a letter, I thought I might be able to use them. I tried not to let them dictate too much. I wanted the “Alphabet” section to contain only 26 segments, for instance. But it wasn’t working. So I drafted as many segments as I thought I needed and kept the title. It was definitely fun to mess around with concept of enclosures. [millions_ad] TM: The dangers of authoritarian rule are made abundantly clear in Scribe. Did current political fever shape the tale? Is compassion the only fix for now? AH: Believe it or not, Graywolf accepted Scribe in December 2015 before the political fever spiked, at least in this country. But certain anxieties and evils made their way into the book, probably because they have been stewing in my home culture (and elsewhere) for a very long time. Appalachians are tribal, and tribes often take comfort in authoritarian rule. It makes defining who is “in” and who is “out” simpler. Christianity, as defined by some folks, can exacerbate the tribal, too. Also, the evils of slavery still haven’t faded from that land—and instinctive distrust of outsiders or migrants of any kind remains very high. I want Scribe to be universal in the way tales are. I hope it translates beyond the Blue Ridge. Billy Kingery is the kind of leader who appears to make life easier. He’s an eloquent populist. And he will take all the power you are willing to cede, just like any devil will. Compassion? If we cannot find it, we will see those who aren’t like us as “other,” as enemy. Literature—all art—is essential to human empathy. TM: How and when did you discover the Jack tales that rustle to the surface in this tale? Certainly we all know “Jack and the Beanstalk” as children. But I did not realize there were so many of those Jack tales, and that they had arrived to the Appalachian region in the ways that they did. Can you talk about them? AH: First, may I mention how cool it is to get that question from someone related to the incredible Horace Kephart, a man who pioneered the preservation of Appalachian landscape and culture? I grew up near the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, one of the region’s first centers for all things Appalachian. The inventive Roddy Moore made sure school children, and adults, were exposed to productions based on the Jack tales. I loved seeing the past brought alive. I was never able to hear the tales told by an old-timey storyteller. They were all gone by the time I was born. Yet vestiges of the stories were embedded in anecdotes told by my father and superstitions relayed by neighbors. When I saw a play or eventually read the collected texts, I recognized eroded tropes and fears and wonders—and that fascinated me. I love how stories fall apart and morph and arise again. When I was a kid, folks would tell strange stories about certain crossroads. And every once in a while, an older person would remind you not to play cards with the devil, literally or figuratively. I have twisted and mashed up Jack tale fragments for my own use in Scribe. Yet I hope I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable a good story can be. And how fluid stories are even while they, sorry for the pun, inscribe our culture. TM: Thank you for mentioning Horace Kephart, who left his gilded library life in St. Louis so that he might spend the rest of his time learning and then advocating for the culture, geography, and future of the Appalachians. You and I are perpetually unburying family. Speaking of which: Your family lore is mentioned in the acknowledgements. I have to know which lore found its way to Scribe. AH: The “Enclosure” story, the myth about the soldier with the coin, is based on a family story from the Civil War. As my grandfather told it, a solider fleeing the Battle of Antietam sought food and shelter near the Potomac River where my great-great-grandmother had been left alone on the shambles of a tenant farm that had been plundered by troops on both sides. She fed him. He gave her a gold coin he earned when he saved the life of Colonel Jeb Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate raider. He didn’t believe he would live very long, and the coin was all he had save his firearm and his horse. The coin was etched with Stuart’s name and Latin motto. It’s still in the family, although there is no evidence Stuart ever truly handed out such things. I also borrowed some names and other incidents. My kinfolk will recognize them. TM: Sisters. You render the complexity of the relationship beautifully. How have you come to understand that relationship and its tugs on the soul? AH: I have a sister, and she is a remarkable woman and was one of the very first readers of Scribe. I needed her eyes on the story because she’s an avid reader but also possesses a more intuitive heart than I. My mother had two sisters—grand souls who were, nonetheless, very different from her. I’ve been watching sisters all of my life. Yet parsing the relationship between the scribe and her sister was the hardest part of the book for me. The scribe possesses many of my own weaknesses. She misses important opportunities for connection in the world. So how do you get a character like that to make the right leap when she needs to? TM: “All a writer can do is lay out the consequences of a person’s choices,” you write. I love that. It shifts, for me, something I have been trying to name myself. How did you come to this knowing? AH: That line came to me late in the writing of the novel. It took me a while to figure out what Scribe was really all about. That’s usually the case for me. I get going with a character and a situation and events begin to spool out in front of me if the writing is going well. But in the end, the how and why of storytelling is at the heart of Scribe just as the how and why of art is at the heart of a great novel like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I didn’t read that book until I had grappled through the second draft of Scribe, but it affirmed for me my hope that art can, and must, survive any disaster we bring upon ourselves as humans. No matter how digital the world becomes or how far we fall into our most brutal, tribal instincts, stories matter. Story makers are pivotal in all cultures. The consequences of human choices as we lay them out are important to building and maintaining societies. TM: You will never write the same story twice. What released you to write this dystopian fable? When did you know that you could not not write it? Where lay the struggle? AH: It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t think of Scribe as dystopian until I began to share it with early readers. The Appalachia I grew up in was beautiful and deprived, although I occupied a privileged place in it. Folks still spoke of polio and measles quarantines as if they were recent. Tragic tales are the coin of the realm in the South. Relaying death and destruction is second nature. I thought I was writing a slightly altered post-Civil War history of the hills where I grew up. I ended up with something different. I felt like I had to write it once I envisioned that besieged and lonely woman standing next to that faltering brick house with her dogs. The struggle was in trying to maintain its strangeness, to not explain too much, to trust that readers can and will shape some of the tale on their own.
Why, in the end, do we read memoir? What’s in it for us – these stories about someone else, these hundreds of pages of adversity and self-discovery, triumph and tarnish and gleam? These are other people’s lives, after all. Strangers, mostly. People we’ll never meet, people whose clocks most often keep on ticking, long after the last words have been inked. Sure, the form has had its fair share of bad press, thanks in no small part to the not-true "true" stories offered by the likes of James Frey’s discredited addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, and Herman Rosenblat’s invented Holocaust love story Angel at the Fence. Sure, it’s been furiously protested, as countless otherwise unknown writers have turned to memoir to package and parade their tall adventure, their unhappy childhood, their ghastly marriage, their misguided mother, their bad luck. Still, every single week a new batch of personal stories is released. Memoir isn’t going anywhere. So what does memoir offer? What can it yield? Why am I, after all these years, still reading it, teaching it, shaping it, seeking it? The answers are many, but here I offer just one: Because memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation. It makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being – to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between. True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. True memoir is a writer acknowledging that he or she is not the only one in the room. Consider, for example, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s international bestseller The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which later became a major motion picture. It’s a slender book – a mere 132 pages. It’s a terrifying book, written by a man who, in December 1995, suffers a massive stroke that leaves him permanently paralyzed. Bauby is “locked in,” unable to move or speak. It’s his left eye that saves him – his left eye, which he relies on to blink at the slate of letters an assistant shares. Blink by blink, letter by letter, Bauby communicates his story. He was a famous magazine editor, we learn. He is trapped, we learn. But he is still alive – and still, miraculously, hopeful. And even though each word comes slowly, even though he has no words to spare, Bauby makes the explicit effort to tell us about ourselves. He looks up from where he is and acknowledges our presence. Here Bauby is, in the early pages, communicating the possibility for epistemic peace in the face of an unspeakable tragedy: You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions. Here he is, pages later, telling us what survival is, ensuring that we understand that sometimes anger is life-giving, too: I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding. If anyone has earned the right to self-absorption, it is Bauby. He cannot, after all, move or breathe or speak without the help of another, and he does not have long to live. But self-absorption is not his métier. All-consuming anger is not his mood. He does not expect, by the end of his book, to be congratulated for the losses he’s endured. Bauby’s interests extend far beyond the terrible thing that has radically rearranged his life. His ambitions are empathic ones. He writes so that we, his readers, might come to know that imagination is salvation, that we must trust the dreamworks in our heads. Bauby, in short, wants to leave behind an artful record of what it is to live. He wants us to know hope, to imbibe it, even though his own existence is fragile. If you want more proof of Bauby’s writerly generosity, look at his final passage. He’s staring straight at us: Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now. I have written five memoirs and a new book — Handling the Truth — about how memoir gets made. I teach the form. On an urban campus in Philadelphia, I sit with young people on the verge of adulthood, talking about the lives they’ve lived and the things that have mattered and the personal details from which stories are sprung. The talk, in my classroom, is about transcendence. It’s about making the work bigger than the writer. The record is only the record, I say. Make the details speak for all of us. It is all too tempting to allow that let-me-tell-my-story instinct to rule, all too easy to spend the time sussing out details, confirming chronologies, giving the whole thing some shine and some sass. Memoirists must succumb to weeks, months, years spent examining (and cross-examining) themselves. But things grow claustrophobic – monochromatic, monologue-esque – when memoirists fail to say to the reader — one way or another— I know that you have lived your joys and sorrows, too. These are my lessons, for you. Consider, now, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a book that begins with these lines: This is what I remember: My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: “I’ll kill you if you scream.” I remained motionless. “Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.” I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered with his left. Sebold will, over the course of her book, render every detail of this brutal, horrifying, unforgivable rape. She will tell us about the police and the hearing and the search for safety. She will share with us her slow return to the world: I was dancing and falling in love. This time, a boy in Lila’s math class: Steve Sherman. I told him about the rape after we had gone to see a movie and had a few drinks. I remember that he was wonderful with it, that he was shocked and horrified but comforting. He knew what to say. Told me I was beautiful, walked me home and kissed me on the cheek. I think he also liked taking care of me. By that Christmas, he became a fixture at our house. This is Sebold’s story. It’s a riveting story. Reporting back must have been excruciating, and we deeply empathize; I profoundly do. But to read Lucky is to tunnel in so completely to another’s tragedy that we forget – and are not encouraged to remember – the communality of survivors. Personal, headline-making, loved by many, Lucky does not, nonetheless, transcend itself. We readers close the book knowing what happened to Sebold. We hold in our hands the blow-by-blow account, a strictly chronological retelling. This is a story about one, told by one. Its lessons – about victimhood, shame, justice, and living forward – may be suggested by the nature of the events, but they are never made explicit. Readers will not find deliberate signifiers here, nor expressly articulated universal truths. It’s not a conversation, in other words, but a tragic (if quite important) story, well-told. Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites is, for the most part, precisely what its title suggests – a reporting on Christensen’s life story, amplified, along the way, by recipes, or, as the jacket copy puts it, “a narrative in which food – eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it – becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life.” Christensen has an uneasy childhood. She has a raucous, unstable adolescence, a difficult time settling in as a young adult, a wild foray journey into middle age. She marries and loses that marriage. She falls in love with a man almost half her age. She finally publishes the novels she writes, to increasing acclaim. Throughout it all, food is Christensen’s salvation; it is her mecca, and the narrative’s primary driver. But Christensen knows she’s not the only woman who has ever leaned on food for emotional succor. Look, for example, at these words from the book’s prologue. Food, Christensen is saying, embodies life lessons for us all. To taste fully is to love fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsible to complexities and truths – good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon. Yeah, we say, when we read this. I’m in. For Christensen has opened a door; she has acknowledged us, has said, in so many words, I may be about to tell you a story that is all about me, but don’t think that I’ve lost sight of the fact that food persuades and maps and consoles you, too. Christensen lifts her story toward something bigger, something signifying. She looks up and glances across her page. I see you, she says. And we feel seen.