tobias wolff

Dear Memoir

I met your kind in college.  It was in Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind. Your pages were musty, your spine well-broken.  Your words engulfed me, lassoed me in the undertow of Jamison’s death-thoughts and hallucinations.  You suited her telling just right.  When I closed the cover I knew Jamison, could feel the tumult of living bipolar and discovering it so late in life.

What happened next?  I did not seek another incarnation of you. Instead, I met your cousins, the Personal Essays.  They were enchanting, always touching my arm and pulling me aside to confide some story well worth my time through its hilarity or gravity.  My favorite of these cousins?  Bernard Cooper‘s “Winner Taking Nothing,” Adam Gopnik‘s “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli,” James Baldwin‘s “Notes of a Native Son,” Joan Didion‘s “Goodbye to All That,” and E.B. White‘s “Once More to the Lake.”

Then your sedate, worldly wise, and pondering cousins came to dinner.  These were the books of Literary Journalism.  How I liked meeting Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains and Old Friends, Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood, the nonfiction sections of Joseph Mitchell‘s Up in the Old Hotel, and Anne Fadiman‘s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

Next to these sat their children, sun-burnt and bespectacled.  The Researched Essays.  They brought bug jars, binoculars, and yellowed biographies to the dinner table, and whatever our conversation topic, they had some trivia to toss us, or excused themselves and consulted Britannica.  They were brilliant and conversational; still, I chose favorites–Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small, David Foster Wallace‘s “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” Gay Talese‘s “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed,” and John McPhee‘s “The Search for Marvin Gardens.”

Halfway through dinner, in flowed your niece, the Lyric Essay, with emerald rings on her fingers and hair down to her waist.  I loved Lia Purpura‘s “Glaciology,” John D’Agata‘s “Notes Toward the Making of a Whole Human Being,” and Albert Goldbarth‘s “After Yitzl.”  After dinner, we sat in the guest room and I tried on her rings.

Your relatives were such good company that I forgot about you.  And when I turned back to you, I found we’d grown apart.

One day we grabbed coffee and you talked about yourself for hours.  At first, I was intrigued.  Your tale began with the promise that you’d make it artistic.  Or funny.  Or that if you talked about yourself long enough, we’d find a scrap or two in common.   I left that day thinking what you told me was kind of hollow. Your stories–of an abusive stepfather in Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life, or an impoverished upbringing in upstate New York in Sonja Livingston‘s Ghostbread–were just about you.  They never connected to something larger.

It was like Ander Monson said in Vanishing Point, his book of critical essays:

We can… fault the assumption that individual experience–sans connection to something larger, beauty or social action, for instance–is in itself interesting as a primary subject… Asserting the primacy of the I suggests that we should care about it because it is an I, because it has incurred slights at the hands of others, of the world.  And we should care.  Sure, I agree with that; everyone is special… and inhabiting their experience allows us to share it, know it… But I still don’t want to read what most people have to say about themselves if it’s just to tell their story.  I want it to be art…

You tried to make it art.  In Ghostbread, you gave me childhood experiences like a pile of Polaroids.  They were beautiful snapshots, but the pile did not make a whole.  In the end, it was just fragments of a life–people came and went and never mattered.

And your stories never got to the point where I felt like, “Yes!  This is what life feels like.”  I believe your stories were true, but they didn’t feel true.

It’s like an anecdote that Stephen King wrote about in The Green Mile. This, at least, is how I remember Steven King’s story.  This kid chopped his finger off and then went to a tent revival, a healing service.  Church folk prayed over the finger and the finger grew back.  And the Green Mile character believed the tale was true because the boy said his finger itched when it grew back.  That itch made the difference between credibility and dismissal.  These are the details I craved in your pages but did not find.

I always heard John Gardner quoted in creative writing workshops: fiction should be a “vivid and continuous dream.”  Memory is vivid but it isn’t continuous.  Maybe memory isn’t thick enough for what your pages ask of it–to create wallpapered, furnished dreams the reader can inhabit.

We met again.  We drank cafe au lait.  I read Dave Eggers‘s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Oliver Sacks‘s Uncle Tungsten, Madeleine L’Engle‘s Two-Part Invention.

You began to win me back.

Dave Eggers disarmed me with his “Rules and suggestions for the enjoyment of this book” and his Acknowledgments section which acknowledged all the book’s conceivable flaws, including “the Self-Aggrandizement as Art Form Aspect.”  He did it, proved himself an “I” worth listening to.  And he was being so postmodern, so aware of the expectations of the form; this meant that even when Eggers was solipsistic, well, it was a commentary on being solipsistic.

Oliver Sacks stretched your possibilities because he told about his childhood without a trace of solipsism.  Maybe this is because he is Oliver Sacks and all parts of the world enchant him.  He can’t tell a scientific story without quoting Milton or Auden, much less tell his own story without praising what he was reading or learning from his relatives.  The world outside his head is fully and wonderfully present in Uncle Tungsten.  Is that something peculiar to Sacks, something not all your legion of writers can manage?  I hope not; a single “I” floating solo through life is flimsy.

Ander Monson corroborates:

I can’t see a way to stop… thinking about the I, examining myself… in text and thought.  Perhaps the answer… is in research, in listening, in exploring, in taking notes.  It’s harder, yes.  It’s finding, creating, or uncovering another subject–something else to rely on or parse beyond the self.

Madeleine L’Engle, too, did more than narrate her own experience, and this made you beautiful.  Two-part Invention was about her marriage, and marriage exists as something third, not fully one person or the other.  Throughout her journal-memoir, L’Engle’s version of first-person was inviting: honest without pedantry and revelatory without narcissism.  I felt like I was being offered her experiences, like she was saying, “I want you to know the real me, the way I’d be if you stopped by when my house was a wreck.”  This is a generous, self-giving narrator, who humbly gives herself in hope of connection.

Maybe this humility is your greatest possibility.

photo by:

The Case for the
Much-Maligned Short Story

The average person, confronted with a free half hour, might spend it watching television or staring at a computer screen – or maybe reading a novel. Maybe. But of those inclined to read, few might read a short story, even it could be finished in that half hour. The short story is the novel’s cousin, sitting in the corner at the party, pleasant looking, full of interesting conversation, but never dancing on the table or telling an outrageous tale at full volume. The short story does not seek attention; it does not market itself. Instead, the short story holds the capacity to stun, inspire, and enrich the life of its reader – but you won’t catch it parading on bestseller lists or Oprah’s Book Club.

It’s easy to dismiss the short story as “apprentice art,” as Barbara Kingsolver suggests in her introduction to the 2001 Best American Short Stories. But writers known more for their stories than anything else – Chekhov, Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, and Tobias Wolff – destroy that theory.

With the proliferation of MFA programs and other creative writing workshops, the short story’s popularity tends to lie heavily among students, would-be writers, and published authors. It is easier to workshop and teach the short story form than the novel, so writers can get more practice with short fiction. We see the two-book deal: a short story collection followed by a novel, as if the collection is just a warm-up. Short stories don’t market well; they rarely make it on the bestseller lists. (Nathan Englander provides one exception, as his book For the Relief of Unbearable Urges spent time on the New York Times bestseller list.)

Despite dismal attention to the short story, several have lately championed the form. Most recently, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network encouraged readers to observe Short Story Month in May. Wickett set out to read three stories a day – one from a collection, one from a print journal, and one from an online journal. Guest bloggers shared their favorite short stories.

The constraints of the short story form create a unique challenge for the writer. Publishing short stories rarely leads to wealth, or even to earning enough to sustain most writers, so the short story writer does not have to write toward money or a market. The confines of sheer space allow the story to do things a novel does not. Everything counts in short fiction. A writer must push against and with limitations, creating greater tension. A short story is life distilled.

Take Lydia Peelle’s story “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing.” Peelle writes the story in sections, modeled after a biology textbook’s organization. A woman deals with her disintegrating marriage, loneliness, and the challenges of making it through everyday life. To contrast her emotional struggle to live, Peelle introduces a herpetologist and his reptiles, creatures who exist simply to survive. When the woman tells him about an attempt at suicide, he says, “Trust the body, not the mind…The body loves itself.

A short story demands more from a reader than a lot of novels. Because every choice the writer makes in a short story bears on its meaning and experience, the reader must pay extra attention. No skimming boring passages or breezing through every couple of pages. Reading a short story requires work, arguably more than both nonfiction and novels.

In fiction, the short story’s form allows for experimentation. Though writers needn’t cater to our ever-shortening attention spans, this particular form does allow us to trust the writer long enough to see what will happen.

But because a short story condenses material and requires so much work, it enriches the reader in a way one can’t escape. Like a pithy quote, one can ruminate on a short story for long after the last sentence. The story lingers and echoes in the spaces of our lives. It may be something as simple as an image, or as complex as a change in perspective.

Paul Yoon’s recent collection, Once the Shore, offers the reader several stories set on an imagined island. Something enchanting about the island and its people breathes out of the stories. In the title story, a young man and an older woman each deal with grief, connecting as if through mutual isolation, though they come from separate cultures, generations, and socioeconomic classes.

The short story tells us about culture. While each school of thought upholds a different idea about how art should handle reality, the fact is that how a story handles reality reflects how we see the world.

As common as irony is today, it’s no shock that one might question the sincerity of others and the self. In David Foster Wallace’s story “My Appearance,” an actress prepares for an appearance on television with David Letterman. Her husband coaches her to present her personality in such a way that the character of David Letterman does not destroy her. Essentially, she needs to adopt a false identity in order to show her real one, survive and avoid any ridicule, and appear sincere. The actress seems averse to putting on airs, but in the end, one can only question if she’s triumphed in sincerity or mastered the art of manipulation.

Not only can a story question a character’s motives (and perhaps the reader’s as well), but it can also reveal multiple sides to a person one might rather dismiss or stereotype. In Holly Goddard Jones’s story “Proof of God,” the reader meets a young man who could be anyone, yet commits a crime one might reserve for the truly terrible. She depicts his confusion and humanity alongside his evil nature. The story does not rely on an easy binary of good/evil, but rather asks the reader to see both simultaneously.

Ultimately, short stories challenge us to see our surroundings in new ways. Technical innovation presents what we take for granted as familiar and represents it as foreign. Characters resemble people we may know, and therefore, provide insight, which may lead to compassion. Short stories force us to pause from our frantic lifestyles long enough to think.

Take a second to experience a story in any literary journal, or locate a copy of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, or the Pushcart Prize stories.