charlie writes memoir
If you can show your mom, you’re not going there: A memoirandum is a conversation between Charlie Walter and Heather Sellers….
which began on email and grew into this…..
Heather: So Charlie, did you read that article in Brevity? What did you think?
Charlie: This is an interesting post. It actually made me go and check out the NY Times article that sparked the blog post. I cut and pasted a few things from that article to put on the front of my draft, so that I see it every time I open the doc.
Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?
“We need to worry you’re not O.K..”
I thought those were pretty spot-on. What do you think?
And how do you feel about this?
The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice.
Heather: I love all this, though I would word it differently….you?
Charlie: “We need to worry you’re not okay”… is one of the best things I’ve heard. The “who wants what, from whom, and what happens if they don’t get it”–that is just yearning to me, with the roadblocks and the hiccups and the current pushing against the character. So I like it, but I like the word yearning better. The last one “the first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice” is a bit crippling. I’m curious for your thoughts on that.
Heather: I maybe say it this way: Write in a way that makes you feel you can’t show your mom your work. If you can show your mom, you aren’t going there.
It’s more about writing something that is true, something that pursues, something that doesn’t want to please… Does that make sense? Hurting people with art is not my thing. Or hurting them in any way on purpose.
Charlie: Absolutely. I can get behind that. I think of how someone reviewed your book: “Deft and sure and endlessly kind.” But true! And honest! And spot-on, searing, heat. I find, for myself and my own writing, that I have to keep people away, that I have to keep the close people away—the friends, the family, mostly, the ones who are actually going to care if what they read makes them “worry that I’m not O.K.” Because if they start to worry about me, and the process isn’t finished, then I get timid. I definitely look away. I get abstract. I write about love instead of the girl.
How important is it to keep certain people away from our work?
Heather: Keeping all people away from the work is key, right? No people. I really like your quote so much—“I write about love instead of the girl.” The minute we send something over to the audience, we lose touch with the deep listening that is required, right? We start posing, then we’re posturing, then before we know it we’re preaching.
I think what you just said about worrying about people worrying about you = crippling = self-censorship is a great way to put it. What scares me as a writer is how this very timidity makes me look away and without my even knowing it. Stealth timidity!
Charlie. I’m really missing having you in class. You were never timid!
I’m really trying to work on this very thing in my daily writing practice. How can I go deeper, push further, be more vulnerable, and still make something that is beautiful, worthy of handing over to a reader?
It seems so much more challenging in memoir (compared to fiction, poetry?)—does it?
Heather:So here’s a question. “We have to worry you are not okay.” How far can you go with that before we lose the reader…because it’s an out of control damaged narrator? Is the resolution always going to be some implied okayness?
Charlie: Well, I followed Kerouac and Cassady all the way across the country several times in On the Road: The Original Scroll. It doesn’t get more out-of-control than that. I stuck with them because 1) every narrator has good insights, like Kerouac, and 2) I am still asking as a reader What happens next?
And then I think that there’s something about facade within the narrator that goes on here, too, where, yeah, the narrator is out-of-control damaged, but they have moments where they say, “Hey. I’m okay. I’ve got a handle on this.” It’s a re-balancing. A re-positioning on the high wire. It’s one of those self-esteem talk-up sessions. And this is all before it falls apart again. I’m okay taking the reader down with me, if I’m careful to be honest about the times when I really thought I was on my way back up. Nothing more humiliating than that. It’s not my lows I’m embarassed by; it’s my false highs. Those are the moments I tend to look away from, but I can’t think of anything more compelling, as a reader, than the narrator who is sure that they are coming up out of it, out of the junk.
I don’t want a narrator who’s drowning. Sink sink sink.
I want a narrator who is thrashing. You thrashed in your book, Heather. So does Kerouac. Junot Diaz. Eggers. I don’t mind “okayness” as a resolution, as long as it is a very different looking “okayness” than the narrator wanted in the beginning.
Heather: Gosh well thank you. But Charlie. I think this is so smart, what you are saying about process and heart and voice. I think it’s exactly right. I wonder how you know it. I wonder what formed this in this, what early reading experiences, or what in your artistic education got you down this path?
And, I am thinking about endings a lot this weekend, working on the ending of an essay that’s troubling me, and thinking about the ending of my memoir in progress. Yes, different “okayness” but more too, right? What more comes at the end? New questions? Do we need to see her with all her new knowledge, new okayness around her like a cloak, and she’s now climbing a different, higher mountain?
Charlie: For me, it’s been reading a lot of books and a lot of starts and a lot of endings and just identifying what I like and what I don’t like. How do I want to be treated, as a reader, at the end of a book?
But you know what? I don’t know anything about endings! So I’m thinking of your book. I see in your book a woman with that new cloak of “okayness,” but there’s still a rip in the cloak. We always have the rips and tears. I am always wanting to see a character who is still thrashing for life. It’s why I never connect with a victimized narrator. Probably not enough life-thrashing.
Maybe it’s like Kerri Strug, the ’96 Olympic gymnast, who hurts her ankle but sticks the landing off the vault, absolutely sticks it, and then has to be carried to the podium by her coach.
I can tell you I know a good ending, when the book ends up laying open on my chest, and the words are just ringing.
Heather! I don’t know! How did you arrive at the ending of your memoir?
Heather: Keri. Love her. I remember writing lots of endings. I remember it being hard. All that unknowing. The story is still always unfolding–if it’s an interesting story. I remember my agent helping me a lot by saying “no” to all of the endings I sent in. I was trying to make it happy. I was trying to make it concludey. I was trying to show the rips were sewn up! No pain! Nothing to see here!
[a week goes by]
Okay. I just read it, the ending of my memoir. “I want you to always,” is the ending. I remember now. I’d struggled for a long time where to put that email, when I come out to the college, and one day, it just clicked…..I re-read the email, the reactions I’d written to other people’s reactions….and it was clear as a bell. OF COURSE THIS IS THE LAST LINE. It has to be that way, I think. A bell. Something that comes to you that was there all along. I think any non writers reading this will read it and think, rightly: they have no idea what they are doing and they make no sense, discussing it.
For me, working on the ending of a piece is really working on the piece.
Earlier today, one of my best, most trusted readers, a brilliant, brilliant reader, told me I had the whole essay in the opening paragraph, and I was so happy. I will be happy about that comment for months.
Working on any part of the essay, the book, is working on the whole book. Oh, and I’m teaching Hemingway this week, Chas. Missing you greatly.
I can’t even remember the ending now, but I want to go and look and see! I know I wanted to hook to the opening somehow, that road that the little family is on, as they leave home and strike out for “home”–which will be a dark wood, utterly unknown and unknowable. But it’s memoir. One can’t get all arty.
Charlie: it could be that this is a place we might be beginning to end.
Charlie Walter has new work in THE PRACTICE OF CREATIVE WRITING. He lives, works hard, prays, and writes in Waco, Texas, in notebooks purchased from the Hope College Bookstore because functionally he is fixed on Envirotec Ampad Composition Books with the green white speckled cover. He writes by hand, always, and the photo above is of his hand and his words and it’s taken by Charlie Walter. Enviortec Ampad is not a co-sponsor of this blog and you can’t click on the words and get anything.