It is definitely worth reading– the book (and the review).
I am a serial reader, so more often than not I have at least two books on my bedside table (or on my Kindle). This past week I finished reading two debut memoirs, Torre DeRoche‘s Love With A Chance of Drowning and Liz Stephens‘ The Days Are Gods.
These are vastly different, these two memoirs, one is an adventure story, the other a literary tour de force, but both had one thing in common: both authors chose to write largely in present tense.
This is not an easy trick. To keep the book moving forward and reflect back while staying in present tense requires a skilled writer. When I’ve used it my sentences tend to be stilted. “I come into the room and discover my husband dissecting a frog.” (Just an example.) Now that sentence is fine and pulls the reader right into the scene. Holy smokes… he’s doing what? I can do it for short spurts, but eventually I end up writing something like, “I come into the room and found my husband dissecting a frog.” In other words, I want to move back to past tense.
I think, or I thought until I read these two books, that present tense is difficult in memoir. The memoirist tends to write looking back at past events; we see the person who experienced those events long ago and offer up reflections based on who we are now.
I suppose it depends on what sort of memoir it is, though, because these two authors manage it well.
DeRoche (Love With A Chance of Drowning), writes a story of action, of things happening in the here and now. She struggles with a new life aboard a boat and deals with her extreme fear of water, gets to know her new lover, his family, as well as all the adventures a sailing life offers. Present tense works wonderfully well here, pulling the reader along for the trans-Pacific voyage. The reader feels as though they are in the boat (without tangling up the lines or tripping over Torre and Ivan).
Believe me, you are right there in their little 32-foot sailboat, Amazing Grace, as DeRoche writes:
“There’s no doubt about it: we’re going to die. It’s night and the wind is vile. The waves are reaching as high as our radar antenna, which must be twenty feet from sea level. We’re staggering down each angry wave, and my stomach keeps bottoming out.
Amazing Grace isn’t so amazing right now, nor is she graceful. She’s tumbling like she’s hammered on salt water. Our life is in the hands of a drunken boat.
Boom! A wave collides with fiberglass. Who knew water could sound like a bomb explosion? These bombs are hitting every minute or two—a horrifying bang, followed by a sharp lurch sideways. My body rolls in my small bunk, and I’m thankful for the canvas lip that keeps me from flying sideways.
Boom! I wait, trembling, praying for her to come back upright. The angle seems too steep. What is our tipping point, anyway? How far can we keel over before we tumble and get swallowed by the jet- black ocean?
Boom! Another wave-bomb hits—a clean uppercut to a staggering drunk. We’re definitely going down. Somehow, she finds her way back upright but then overcompensates in the other direction.
Boom! A heavy crest comes down from above, washing the topsides with fire hose pressure.”
Stephens (The Days Are Gods), on the other hand, writes about a time when she and her actor-turned-welder husband move to Mormon country, Utah, where she completes her MFA but also searches for “home.” She creates a world where the reader resides inside the head of the writer. We know what she is feeling or thinking at any given moment as she feeds her goats, buries chickens killed by a neighbor’s dog, and tries to get to know her neighbors. But we are also experiencing her reflecting on those events from her current perspective as a writer. How Stephens does this is a real skill of construct and form.
“Yes, I still feel the frisson of unexpectedness in moments, but it comes more and more slowly, less and less often-maybe when I’m standing in front of a morning class, realizing that I’ve already fed a dozen chickens in the dark of morning, when I’m just about still asleep, climbing two pipe fences at six months’ pregnant to dig layer feed out of the bag in the tack room, nudging aside my not-intelligent charges to set the metal feeder among them, weaving through drowsy horses to trudge back to the house. As much as I want to feel I belong, as I lose my sense of outsider resonance – shedding the irony I was after all trying to outrun – I feel sometimes as if my sounding is off, my bearings indistinct.”
As different as these two memoirs are, the immediacy and intimacy of present tense works so well in both cases. Both authors occasionally flip to past tense when writing back story and future or subjunctive when postulating, but the bulk of both works is present tense.
I feel lucky that I pickled them both up and read them at the same time.
“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.” ~ John McPhee
I’ve had a terrible time returning to my writing lately, pushing on through what is possibly the shittiest first draft of all time. The work came to a complete halt after a month of intensive writing last November in which I managed to write 30,000 words (the good part) but also discovered some pretty unsavory truths in the process. I realized that a lot of what I’d written would need to be deleted entirely or at least seriously rewritten, the arc of the story was no longer what I thought it should be, and a recurring theme kept insisting on being told. I was not comfortable with any of it. The whole memoir imploded after that; it was all too much. Marge Piercy describes this aspect of the writing as “eating bricks for breakfast.”
Despite all of the whining, recently a couple of very interesting and encouraging things have happened to me.
I stumbled across a guest post by Richard Gilbert over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, a writing blog I enjoy reading. Gilbert was blogging about his soon to be published memoir, Shepherd: A Memoir (due out in the spring, 2014). This led me to his blog and a piece he wrote about John McPhee and writer’s block. He started the post writing about the name of his blog, Narrative. It is now often confused with the lit magazine of the same name. He wanted to change it and thought 4th Draft would be a good title. When he googled it, he ran into John McPhee’s latest essay on writing in The New Yorker, Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes.
Gilbert went on to talk about things he learned along the way while writing what he thought would be a year-long writing project. Seven years, many revisions, and four drafts later, he now has what he considers a worthwhile effort. He is remarkably humble about the process.
I found comfort hearing about a writer encountering the same issues I’ve had while writing my own work-in-progress. He, too, found his story was not about what he thought when he first started writing it but, instead, found far deeper and richer themes. It was not until the second draft that he began to be able to say, Yes, this is what it is about. I wrote to him and thanked him for the post, saying how much it had meant to me. He wrote back, saying it pleased him that I found some of it helpful. He also said what my comments told him is that I am deeply immersed in my own work, and, like a magnet, attracted to what I need.
I got hold of a copy of the McPhee’s New Yorker essay and read it. I found such solace listening to a great writer talk about the agony of writing the first draft. He says he hates everything about it. The writing stinks, he feels worthless and wonders why he ever chose a writing profession, his ideas are stuck, and getting it onto the page is agony. In a letter to his daughter he describes the first draft,
“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”
Dear God, do I ever know how that feels. He goes on to talk about the second, third, and fourth drafts, which sound much more encouraging. It even sounds like fun by the third draft.
But that shitty first draft is a must.
Coincidentally, I was in the states recently helping my 94-year-old mother move from her home of twenty plus years to a very nice assisted living facility. (So nice in fact I said to a friend, If this is what assisted living looks like, move me in!) During the sorting and packing process we came across many things: original newspapers announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, a family Bible, print date 1815, and other things not quite so interesting.
In the give-or-throw-away pile was a small leather case with a tiny tooled flower on the cover. I undid the miniature c-clasp, still intact, and opened the rectangular case, one side padded in claret red velvet and the other with a gold picture frame of something called a Daguerreotype, a vintage direct camera image on a silvered copper plate. The image is oxidized now, nothing remaining but a gold rim framing a blurred area. My mother did not want it, and, unsure why, I put it in my luggage.
When I got home and found the little picture frame, I thought to myself, This is silly. Mum is right, I always save these sentimental things. It is of no use, or value, and more practically, what am I going to do with this thing anyway? But I put it on my writing desk next to a photograph I keep of my parents taken around their 70th wedding anniversary. A few days ago I looked at the little frame and it hit me, the hand-to-forehead jolt.
I remembered why I saved it or at least some part of me remembered.
Years ago, when I first thought seriously about writing, I read Anne Lamott’s now famous book, Bird by Bird (Anchor Books, 1994). In it she wrote about a one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk, because, she says,
“It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car–just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”
I wanted a one-inch picture frame of my own after I read that, and I looked and looked but never found one. How serendipitous that I should find one now, now when I finally understand what she was writing about, how getting that first draft onto the page takes focusing, not on the whole, but simply on an individual scene, one description, or one conversation, just fling it onto the page like mud against a wall, bird by bird, so I can see what I have for the next draft.
I like the little frame because it came from my father’s family, but, more than that, I love that it has a blurred image of possibilities… something like the first draft of a book.
Scintilla #7– What have been the event horizons of your life – the moments from which there is no turning back?
There are times in our life when we stand at an intersection and more often than not it requires hindsight to know we were even there. Yogi Bera once said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it,” and perhaps that is the best possible advice. Either way, whatever decision we make will irrevocably affect our lives going forward.
And that hot day in June when my husband said to our lawyer, “Yes. Close his easement,” it unleashed a series of events that would irrevocably change my life.
It might have been the air conditioner blowing a chilly wind that made me shudder, but it might have been that second sense I developed after years of working the emergency room, that second sense that tells us we ought to proceed with caution.
Whatever else I have learned from what followed, one thing is certain. The next time I am tempted to aggressively engage others in any grand design to make things better or to avoid loss and destruction, I will remember that pivotal moment in the lawyer’s office. Because to win sometimes we lose more than we gain.
What made us think, expatriates in another country, we knew enough or understood enough, to enter into a legal battle over an easement?
I do not know the answer to that. but my husband was convinced he would rather fight than give in to neighbors traipsing across our land.[This is an excerpt from a memoir. Thanks to the fine people over at The Scintilla Project, I edited this little passage, the moment where there was no turning back.]
If you’d like to take part, follow this link or click on their icon in the right-hand menu. It’s fun. It’s Scintilla- a fortnight of storytelling.
Finding the angle of repose, that easy place where story flows
is no easy task.
First, pour your heart out on the page
until a pile forms— sufficient text for a memoir, say.
(Example: if the memoir has 360 pages, write M=360)
Using a life span and brutal honesty, measure the amount of truth versus myth you have created, and divide M by half (most probably).
M ÷ 2 = 180
Edit and rewrite to create that desired book-length document.
Remember, the steeper the slope the more likely the pile is to slough off, slipping until…eventually we find that angle
where the story stands and the truth prevails.