Friday, December 16, 2011

To shape or mold...


Here's a little experiment.  Consider the following:
We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.
This is the opening paragraph of a novel about a boy who finds a collective father-figure at his local bar, a place that over the years offered him "shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality."

Consider this:
We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.
This is the opening paragraph of a memoir written by a man who as a boy found a collective father-figure at a local bar, a place that over the years offered him "shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality."

~~

Did your attitude toward the passage change when you discovered that it was memoir?  As a writer and teacher of autobiographical essays, I notice that casual reader brings to bear different assumptions about fiction versus nonfiction. Dorothy Allison wrote, "the deepest way to change people is to get them to inhabit the soul of another human being who is different from them. And that happens in story. That happens in literature." I like that she broadens her argument to include literature at large, allowing in narrative poetry and personal essays. The impulse to inhabit another's life—a stone's throw, when managed well, from the gift of empathy—is found in the biographer as well as the fiction writer. It's found in the autobiographer, as well.

I recently read David Carr's The Night of the Gun, and although I'm mixed on the book's success, I'm wholly taken with its premise: the journalistic investigation of one's past.  Carr digitally records interviews with dozens of people from his past and present—from dodgy drug dealers to his twin daughters, born prematurely to a crack-smoking mother—in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his druggy, befogged past, but also to see himself from the point-of-view of third-person. There I am/he is.  Carr's impulse is to inhabit his life told-by-others, and that's a fascinating idea, to me, though Carr's hardly the first; as our culture tips toward full-on video and online documentation, perhaps it's a tidal shift toward challenging received forms of memoir and autobiography. (Carr maintains an interesting website devoted to the book and its processes.) 

Back to inhabiting: when I write autobiographically, I'm trying to inhabit the past, or more accurately the present looking back, and I feel that that's a desire similar to the fiction writer or the dramatist, the desire to inhabit a life, and via language and imagination to render that life artfully and meaningfully.  I don't always succeed, neither does the fiction writer.  Lives—imagined or otheriwse—must be molded to matter.


Excerpt and cropped cover image from The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

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