The Question Robin Hemley Hates
People who read my memoir often want to know whether I’m healed.
This question always terrifies me. I didn’t know I needed to be healed, but leaving that aside for the moment, it’s still a question that stymies me: “After writing X, did you feel healed?”
It’s an innocent enough question, and I’m not trying to be critical of the journalists and ordinary people (those pesky ordinary people!) who ask this question repeatedly. And I suppose I should take it as a compliment that anyone would care whether I’m healed, but the problem is that there’s no simple answer. I suppose it depends what your intention is for writing: To me, healing suggests something permanent. Something gets better. But in my experience, there’s no permanence in life. You write something, and perhaps it moves a reader and you, as well. But does it heal you? There’s a literal-mindedness to the question, which plays into the hands of those who would call memoirists “navel-gazers.”
The question makes me want to question the questioner: Must I be healed? Is that a requirement? If I haven’t been healed, does that mean I’ve failed to write a good book? I’m afraid that some people (readers, writers, editors, talk show hosts, film makers, soft ball players) might answer, We expect redemption. We expect results! We expect that after you share your awful secrets, you will, at the very least, begin the healing process.
But is this what literature does? Shouldn’t literature leave healing to the therapists? I never read, say, Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” to be healed or redeemed. In her famous story, a family from Atlanta takes a drive and winds up murdered by an insane escaped convict by the name of The Misfit. Everyone in the family other than the cat, Pitty Sing, dies. And yet, as those who have read the story know, it’s precisely about redemption. OK, it’s elegant redemption; it’s not spill-your-guts-and-win-an-Oscar redemption. Although there is literal gut-spilling in the deaths of O’Connor’s characters, you never see it. It happens off-stage, in the woods of a lonely country road, to be precise, and you must use your imagination to picture the results of that far away gunshot. Famously, the Misfit, after shooting the selfish grandmother in the story, remarks, “She’d a been a good woman if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” She’s redeemed in the story in a moment of grace (of the Christian variety), in which she loses her selfishness for presumably the only time in her life. But was Flannery O’Connor healed by writing the story?
As a memoir writer, I’m the grandmother, the Misfit and Flannery O’Connor all rolled into one. I’m writing about myself, yes, but writing about a younger self most often, trying to make sense of my selfishness, my craziness and heartlessness armed, as Bernard Cooper states, with “the luminous power of words.” When someone asks if I’m healed, I want to answer, “I’d be healed if I wrote a memoir every minute of my life.” In my experience, healing is as fleeting as “goodness.”
Explorations in Nonfiction
review by Caron Krauth
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Vol 1 No 1, Spring 1999.
Michael Steinberg (ed.)
Michigan State University Press
As a result of the recent burgeoning in popularity of the memoir and personal essay forms, new journals are emerging from the USA that are solely devoted to publishing short works in what is currently termed 'creative nonfiction'. The first issue of Fourth Genre, a stylishly produced journal edited by Michael Steinberg, of Michigan State University, contains a selection of memoirs and essays which provide some good examples of the fluidity and blurring of boundaries that is occurring in this field of writing.
Fourth Genre is impressive in the balance and variety of content it maintains, keeping reader interest throughout and preventing any 'nonfiction overload'. In keeping with the fluidity of the writing it includes interviews, roundtable discussion, a photo essay, full-length reviews, reader to reader capsule reviews and plans to include reader response in later editions. In his introductory notes, the editor explains that the policy of the journal is to actively encourage essays, memoirs, commentary and reviews from poets, fiction writers and editors as well as from current practitioners of nonfiction, and this approach is reflected in the writing backgrounds of the contributors to this issue, many of whom are also fiction writers, editors and/or poets. The journal would appeal equally to readers of short fiction as to those interested in memoir and essay.
Along with other areas of contemporary writing such as fictocriticism and paraliterature, creative nonfiction can be wonderfully subversive and transgressive of traditional notions relating to genre, with its shifting and stretching of traditional boundaries and hybridisation of form. Thus contributors to Fourth Genre utilise narrative, analysis, reportage, blend these with scenes, dialogue, or explore their subjects in lyrical, poetic and discursive ways which have traditionally been unavailable to nonfiction.
Without denying the value of narrative, creative nonfiction has taken advantage of postmodern/feminist theory to free nonfiction from meta-narrative and the idea of 'fixed' histories, has freed the ordinary person to write her or his own stories without the notions that previously ensured the genre was dominated by 'great' or 'famous' men writing about their 'great lives and deeds' (traditionally only one out of eight autobiographies has been written by women). Jocelyn Bartkevicius, in her meditation on the tradition of memoir in this issue, points out that the genres of essay and memoir have also had a subversive history, as they refuse 'to be silent about ideas, experiences, and perceptions that the larger culture would prefer to suppress'. Fourth Genre contains stories by women and men which revel in the personal and intimate, small details and ordinary occurrences, that can give unexpected and delightful impact or insights into the larger world. In these writings, it is not the events that are necessarily important, but the meanings that the writer and reader derive from them - the 'how', rather than the 'who'. Writers such as Woolf, Thoreau, Whitman, E.B. White are cited as revered predecessors of the genre.
Though some of the included memoirs are not cutting edge material, there are innovative pieces, stories that resonate in the reader's mind, evoke moods and experiences of place and time, that show sensitive appreciation of how words can be handled in non-fiction genres and that are also 'plain good stories'. Within this variety, ranging from micro-memoir to nature diary, are recurring themes of place and landscape, identity, belonging and not belonging, of the frailty of the physical body and of family and relationships. The more personal memoirs, in keeping with the best examples of the genre, are intimate without being sentimental or self-absorbed. Many of the pieces also consciously examine the importance of memory and the need to reinvent/discover our own stories and connect to those who are close to us. As a non-American reader, I also enjoyed the occasional excursion out of the United States by several of the fifteen contributors.
Being one of the baby boomer generation currently experiencing the trauma and frustrations of having to confront the reality of the aging and deaths of loved parents, I particularly related to the beautifully crafted pieces by Robin Hemley and Rasma Haidri.
Haidri's story is an excellent example of writing that is intimate, touching and poetic without a trace of schmaltz. In 'What the End Is For', the breaking in half of a two inch coca cola glass is an event which serves to preserve and renew her and her mother's shared recall of the world they had together, in 'the green-lawn days' of childhood.
Robin Hemley's richly woven memoir, 'Reading History to My Mother', breaks down preconceptions of 'male' writing as being abstract and distant and 'female' writing as being personal and intimate. In this story of secret histories and disclosures, Hemley shows tremendous personal delight in his young daughter and compassion, empathy and insight in the tender portrayal of his mother, who is deteriorating both physically and mentally. When Hemley gives his mother, a gifted writer whose sight is failing, a box of macadamia nuts, he continues to hear echoes of the disappointment and fear in her reply: 'Oh, I thought it was a book'.
Phyllis Barber, in her meditation on place, culture and memory, speaks of the importance of reverie not just to re-examine our own lives, but also to find the universals common to Other. She feels that the challenge for writers of memoir and autobiography is to find 'new imaginative stories about the old stories, new ways of experiencing what we've concluded is "real".'
Other pieces contain surreal imagery, wry and humorous observations, lustful ruminations on the relationship between the writer and his/her muse in the writing process, insightful cultural investigations, dreams and longings, crisp and innovative prose styles and thoughtful explorations of the self and of the 'bigger picture'.
In the second half of the issue, where examples of creative nonfiction give way to discourse and reviews, essayist and teacher Scott Russell Saunders discusses the 'fourth genre' in the context of his own work, particularly the personal essay genre. In keeping with Australian fictocriticism, he encourages his students not to suppress the first person singular in academic writing and urges them to risk-take, to explore 'out from familiar territory into the blank places on their maps'. Saunders also makes a valid point when questioning the label 'creative nonfiction', pointing out that the term 'Nonfiction' implies fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured, and that putting 'creative' in front of nonfiction is pretentious in its implication that other forms of nonfiction are not creative works of intellect and imagination.
Over the last several years, American critics have been blaming memoir for blurring reality by appropriating traditional fiction techniques, for not sticking to 'facts', and have accused the genre of springing from 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in its characterisation of whining and indulgence. In the 'Roundtable' section of Fourth Genre, these issues are faced head-on by Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Steven Harvey, Michael Steinberg and Peter M. Ives, who contribute informed, stimulating and intelligent discussions on the subject.
The history of memoir is discussed, with the personal essay being traced back to Montaigne, St. Augustine and the ancient Greek orators. It is pointed out that the self-indulgence spoken of by critics is not characteristic of the genre, and that 'interiority - story-telling, confession, metaphor, a bit of dialogue, and even moments of imagination - has long been crucial to memoir'.
The shifting nature of memory is explored and challenged - Bartkevicius saying that St. Augustine 'views memory as not just a storehouse, but a creative faculty, in constant development and transformation'. Steinberg and Ives feel that memory is part invention but not necessarily untruthful, and that the storyteller must use whatever tools are at hand. Ives suggests that what people have always wanted is to be told stories - the real issue for him is not whether nonfiction writers 'appropriate' fictional devices, but is with the quality of the storytelling. I agree, as I have no interest in reading boring or poorly written stories whether 'factual' or 'fictional'. Certainly, writers working in the many sub-genres of creative nonfiction (the Centre for Autobiographic Studies discusses more than twenty kinds of memoir on its website) will continue to have different approaches and needs in regard to their use of fictional devices, but to me, good creative nonfiction has much in common with good fiction - it tells stories in which I can become totally immersed due to the quality of the writing and the insights/illuminations revealed. Creative nonfiction also offers the added bonus of a more personal writer/reader relationship.
Australian memoirist and academic, Jill Ker Conway, writes in her essay 'Points of Departure' (in Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser), 'There are stories that we tell from our history, and we tell them well or we tell them ill'. Memoirists and essayists must continue to strive towards achieving the enormous creative potential inherent in these forms of writing. Hopefully, journals such as Fourth Genre will continue to help both creative nonfiction writers and readers by publishing quality work that will offer us more paths through the dark woods of this life, for as Saunders points out in his talk, 'we need all the paths we can find'.
Manuscript submissions for Fourth Genre should be sent to: Michael Steinberg, Editor, Fourth Genre, Department of American Thought and Language, 229 Bessey Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824.
Caron Krauth is particularly interested in the blurring of boundaries and creative potential of nonfiction and hopes to complete a higher research degree in the field.
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Vol 3 No 2 October 1999
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady