Friday, October 30, 2009

Words on Memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg

"I felt a sense of frustration and outrage that people started to look for newspaper reporting when they picked up a memoir. The form has never been that -- it's deeply impressionistic. And isn't that what we look to artists for? A new rendering, a unique voice in a common conversation. Art should always give us something to see that we couldn't have defined before. At the beginning of Speak, Memory Nabokov describes his "awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold." He acknowledges that each consciousness is acute and unique, in possession of its own "bright blocks." And he's going to write them down. I also love memory's fallibility implied in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, which is memoir: He writes, "I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six." Thus, the two versions are both true and untrue at the same time. I guess I felt that I needed to make absolutely clear how deeply I revered the form of memoir, what a fascinating, personal expression it is. By definition, memoir is eccentric, to use your word." -- Susanna Sonnenberg, author of Her Last Death

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


There is a fashion today among many of my contemporaries to treat the events of their past with irony. It is a legitimate method of self-defense. ‘Look how absurd I was when I was young’ forestalls cruel criticism, but it falsifies history. We were not Eminent Georgians. Those emotions were real when we felt them. Why should we be more ashamed of them than of the indifference of old age? I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live again the follies and sentimentalities and exaggerations of the distant time, and to feel them, as I felt them then, without irony.” – Graham Greene, from his introduction to his memoir, A Sort Of Life

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Is It Done?

I don’t like that word, “finish.” When something is finished that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting. I just stop working on it for awhile. – Arshile Gorky

Fred wrote this quote down from the exhibition we just attended in Philadelphia, a full retrospective of Gorky’s paintings.* “Here,” he said later, bringing out his notebook, “you’ll like this.” And I do. Very much. It echoes what I have said about writing.

When I was in my teens and first awakening to literature and how a writer could speak through writing in a way you can’t speak any other way, I thought that the words I was reading in Virginia Woolf’s book or Jean Rhys’s book or Kurt Vonnegut’s book were the chiseled words they had firmly and finally decided upon and that in no way could they be changed or improved upon. When you wrote, I thought, your job was to line up the best words and get it right.

I have submitted The Guru Looked Good to many people under different circumstances, and each time I polish it up, and each time I think that’s the best it can be. I think it’s done. And then the next submission time or performance comes around and I see many places where I can sharpen the focus, and I make changes.

I came to realize that when something is published it’s a snapshot of something in motion – you’re catching the work at a particular moment. Writers don’t usually return to something once it’s published, but that doesn’t mean it’s “done.” Nothing’s ever done. The writing – the art -- is alive.

Which could bring me to the subject of getting someone to edit your work. A sore subject with some.

Recently, I was on a panel of mostly memoir writers and someone from the audience – a well meaning writer -- asked us if we recommended having someone edit your work. Two people on the panel, in unison, answered immediately, “Yes.”

I had to chime in. I had to fight this automatic yes.

There is a place – somewhere – for outside editing, but it is a relatively small and insignificant place when we’re talking about writing and especially about memoir which is the most personally demanding form of writing. So much of writing – and the pleasure and effort of writing -- when you’re thinking about putting your work out in the world – is about revisiting your creation and seeing what occurs to you as you read it through again. So I sometimes do plenty of editing when I’m preparing something for presentation.

But editing is the easy part. Kind of like coasting after you've biked to the top of the hill.

I am much more interested in those first grabs for material, when you really have to take risks and reach into yourself and choose what images you are going to go with and what trail of crumbs you are going to follow. That’s what we do in our workshops and it is the most difficult part of writing.

Back to editing since those two writers who said, “Yes!” so effortlessly later took such umbrage with my contrasting point of view.

Very very very few people are capable of editing your work. Certainly not some random professional. A good professional will most likely, at best, tell you how to get your work to conform to some standard. And if that’s your goal, well good-bye and good luck.

Writing and art are about escaping standards. So if you have someone who knows you and your writing deeply, someone who you think is also a good writer – they’d be a good choice to read and respond to your work and make suggestions if they have them. Suggestions. That’s all an editor can make. Writers must always have the last word.

The last thing a person in the process of or beginning to write needs to hear about is getting someone to edit their work. Because beginning writers will be tempted to get their work to Point A and then submit it to a professional for the supposed “fixing.” Then, like a butterfly, the professional will pin the thing to a board and the vulnerable, unsupported artist will assume that that’s the end product.

No. Don’t give your work to a professional editor unless you know them very well and you have a clear vision for what you are going for in your writing. Hold onto your work. Revisit it. Let it mature. Don’t race to have someone else deem your work publishable. Remember, Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime.

*Go see the Gorky exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. You will see the work of an artist giving himself over to his inner vision, voice, mystery.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Favorite 2009 Memoirs

I have two favorites and I just finished the second.

When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh and Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg.

For anyone who has a real interest in current memoir -- or memoir at all -- these two are musts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Writer's Block & Other Things

Last Saturday I was in Soho, waiting to meet for the first time the memoirist Said Sayrafiezadeh. He wrote my favorite memoir of ’09, “When Skateboards Will Be Free” and he had suggested we meet at McNally Jackson on Prince Street, a bookstore I had never heard of. Walking down from the Bleeker Street subway stop, I realized that it must have been a long time since I'd been down this way. I didn't recognize the blaze of new stores and all the pretty people filling the sidewalks. One place that claimed to be a “deli” had an open-air swath of tables, filled on this warm-enough day, and I swear we could have almost been on Rodeo Drivc.

I arrived at the bookstore first and went straight for “New Nonfiction” and within minutes had found a new Alice Miller, reason to celebrate.

Alice Miller first came to prominence in the eighties with her first book, The Drama of the Gifted Child. I wasn't in the States then and missed it, and missed all her books until just a few years ago when I discovered “The Body Never Lies” and “Pictures From a Childhood.” Now I think of her as someone doing absolutely individual work. I find her work immeasurably supportive and it is the only thing that makes any sense to me, that helps at all, when I find myself down in the depths of depression when nothing looks good or hopeful.

Someone asked me about writer's block yesterday. I think of writer's block as a form of depression, the form that hits writers when they want to write and can't. I advise anyone who wants to write real memoir, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred memoir to read Alice Miller if you want some support. And you're crazy if you don't want support.

Alice Miller is a true ally of a person's individuality. She doesn't give a flying fuck for your parents. And that's unique.

Everywhere I turn I see people doing more or less what they want, but reserving a corner of themselves for their family, especially for their parents. When it comes to family they give in and follow the rules. I see it all the time. People out there supposedly having their own lives, but as soon as a parent gets sick, or a parent has a birthday, or a child is coming home for Thanksgiving – everything is overturned. Real life is put on hold, because, after all, “it's family.”

You can't write memoir if you're going to hold onto that stuff. Or you can, but your writing will be compromised to the degree that you are willing to bend it to fit family values.

Okay, well a bunch of people have stopped reading by now, so now I'm just talking to my fellow hardcore writers. Here's Alice: “Many impressive rituals have been devised to make children ignore their true feelings and accept the cruelties of their parents without demur. They are forced to suppress their anger, their true feelings, and honor parents who do not deserve such reverential treatment, otherwise they will be doomed to intolerable feelings of guilt all their lives. Luckily, there are now individuals who are beginning to desist from such self-mutilation and to resist the attempt to instill guilt feelings into them. These people are standing up against a practice that its proponents have always considered ethical. In fact, however, it is profoundly unethical because it produces illness and hinders healing. It flies in the face of the laws of life.”

Strong stuff. I love it.

I didn't mention Alice when I answered the man yesterday about writer's block, though I could have. Instead, I talked about what works for me in the moment, and Alice has much to do with this. When I am not writing – when I am driving to work, or in a meeting, or out in the woods – when I am thinking about the writing I will do, and then when the moment comes – finally, I am in a workshop or here at the local coffee shop with my new laptop bought for a song – and instead of the release I’ve been looking forward to I feel resistance, suddenly there is nothing to write, no story to tell – in other words, when writer's block rises up, this is what I do.

I rebel. I fight back. I can't see my enemy. Can't see the force that does not want me to speak, that wants me to feel small and insignificant and ridiculous. I know that's what's at stake. It has nothing to do with my true value or abilities. It may take a moment or two of hesitation, of capitulation, but I pick up the pen, I will not be deterred or convinced that there is no point to writing. I know there is. Because I’ve been through this many times. I know I must overcome this. And I get the first sentence down and then the second and then the third. And I damn well keep going.