This is my response to my “Reading as a Writer: Nonfiction” seminar. We had to readI Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl and Stop-Time by Frank Conroy and write about how they might inspire us. Normally, these seem like books I’d be all over, but in actuality, I couldn’t get through them quickly enough. I have a bunch of other things that I feel like I will explode if I do not read, and repressing my urgency resulted in a lot of petulance. Here we go:
What was most striking to me about Hampl’s collection of memoir-essays was her search for a morality of story-telling. She calls memory “a personal confirmation of selfhood, and therefore the first step toward ethical development”. It is in searching for this sense of authority, of the personal experience turned universal in the telling, that she looks to the great examples: her icons of transcendent memoir. In writing about Milosz, Whitman, St. Augustine, and others, she returns again and again to the transformation of memory by the act of public remembering. I was especially affected by her examination of Plath. I’ve never considered myself an autobiographical writer (I’ve always found it repressive, rather than liberating). After reading TheSmile of Accomplishment, however, I think I was able for the first time to see the relationship between the writer (“the poet of mythic sensibility” in Plath’s case) and autobiographical material differently. How do we transcend the “severe limitations of meaning imposed by the merely personal use of autobiography”? How to bring about the “collapse of the autobiographical self in the service of the emerging mythic self” and how to become “useful”? The beginnings of an answer, I think, are to be found in Hampl’s idea of the burning away of the narrative of one’s life, of becoming an instrument. Since reading Hampl’s book I’ve begun seeking this sense of transformation in my own work, thinking of writing as letting fiction come through me, rather than from me. In my case, it’s resulted in fiction that hews closer to my own experience without actually belonging to that experience.
Impressionistic and solipsistic, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time was as much a memoir as a meditation on the flow of time: the way memory has its own perspective. Among the unusual-at-the-time story-telling strategies Conroy used were setting detailed, novelistic scenes; disordering the sequence of events; switching back and forth between the past and present tense, depending on his psychic distance from the events described; and returning again and again to certain images. More than once he finds himself speeding through the night in a variety of vehicles or staring down at the world from a great elevation. I think Conroy’s memoir is more interesting as a model for non-fiction writers than fiction writers, because it borrows so much from the novel. It was interesting to read in combination with Hampl’s work because it illustrates what Hampl is talking about when she proposes the manipulation of autobiography in service of narrative: of achieving something more than a retelling and examination of events. Although Conroy reveals a great deal, that isn’t the point; what he’s trying to get at is more like Revelation.
I’ve recently been reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and I’ve been impressed both by the mixing of autobiography and fiction, and by the way Sebald manipulates images to energize stories that are largely plot-less. For example, In Dr. Henry Selwyn, the first section of the book, he takes the idea of the dead returning to us, and presents us with a series of images of exactly that, each one a different take on the phrase. The piling up becomes as pressing as it is poignant, and there is a certain release, and a sort of resolution when the last image of the story is also the most literal. When the body of a man long dead emerges from a glacier, it answers an implicit question for the story’s narrator, but it’s doubly meaningful for the reader. This gets at something I’ve been thinking about lately, which I think is also going on in Conroy’s book, which is the idea that there are actually two stories a writer needs to think about: the story among the characters, and the narrative that is the reader’s perception of what has occurred. It’s something beyond dramatic irony. I think in Sebald’s work, the narrative arc described by the reader’s thinking about the story is even more important than the narrative arc of the events unfolded on the page. It’s something I’ve started to think about and play with a bit in my own writing.