February 28, 2011

Stanley Fish’s Structure of a Sentence

Anyone who’s tried to teach sentence diagramming knows the horrors of figuring out the parts of a sentence. It also effectively points out that (most) teachers of English are not linguists and that the English language is ubercomplex. We can’t do it; how can we expect students to?

I’m reading How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish. I’m only partway through, but he gives us such a fabulous way to look at sentences! He points out that, instead of trying to figure out the parts of speech or whatever, there is a basic sentence structure: “doer-doing-done to.” For example, “Bob collected coins” or “John hit the ball.” You can also shorten it to “doer-doing” such as “Bob collected” or “Joyce jumped.” But all the other added clauses or complexity fits or adds to this basic structure.

Isn’t this brilliant? It really is a great way to look at a sentence. Much easier than parts of speech.

Questions of the Day:  Have you tried to diagram sentences recently?  Were you successful?

February 25, 2011


Sort of tailing on yesterday’s post, I’ve been wondering about casting oneself as a victim. I certainly don’t consciously think of myself as a victim, and just because I acknowledge the challenging parts of life doesn’t make me a victim, I don’t think.

It’s like I tell my husband, it’s important to acknowledge where you are damaged and to try to heal that. Blame does not need to be assigned and another person made out to be evil in order for me or anyone to acknowledge how they’ve been hurt in the past. It’s part of the healing process.

I thought I’d explore that a little today.

To me, a victim is not simply someone who has had a bad thing happen to them. Certainly that’s the strict definition. But when I think of victimhood, I think of people who are perpetual victims, who cast themselves in that role ~ and I’m not blaming the victim here, just pointing out that we all have roles that we’re comfortable in life, and victim is one of those roles. People who think of themselves in this way often blame the world for everything. It’s never their fault and they don’t take control of their lives. They feel they have no power so they take no power. Plus they have a distinct poor-me attitude. Let’s call them Eeyores: “I probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway.” They might be complainers or even bitter and angry.

So where is the line between victimhood and acknowledgement? I’m not sure, exactly. On one end of the scale, there are people who don’t even acknowledge bad things happen, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide or Marge Simpson. This is definitely a coping mechanism. But I think that people who do this suppress anger and healthy reactions to things. After all, what is anger but an appropriate response to being hurt, so if you suppress it, turning it in on yourself, you’re suppressing a healthy emotional life. And suppressed anger turns into depression.

There are also angry people. They also feel no control over their lives, and the hurt is so deep and unmanageable they lash out all the time. In a way, they exhibit victimhood too, only instead of turning the anger inward like the optimists, they turn it outward and hurt other people.

Then there are people, often successful people, who are optimists and but they take control of their lives. They try to balance things, try to be proactive in their mental health, try to be healthy in all aspects of their lives. They have a much healthier balance and stable take on things. This is the person I strive to be.

So I guess the component of victimhood that makes the difference is if you try to do better, try to control things. I don’t think a person should labor under the delusion that the world is totally controllable ~ that leads to its own set of problems ~ but having goals and pushing yourself often gets the healthiest emotional results. An active management of our emotional lives.

Maybe this is just self-justification, as I’ve always tried to be proactive in managing my mental health. But I really have never thought of myself as a victim, and I don’t think talking about and working through your problems are signs of victimhood ~ quite the opposite.

And on a final note, writing is a way to take a proactive approach to past hurt, I think. One of the reasons why people become writers is that they feel they haven’t had a voice in the past, and they write to bear witness to things that went unsaid. It’s a healthy emotionally positive response. Bearing witness is not the same thing as passive, inactive, verbal wallowing and blaming.

Questions of the Day: How do you define victimhood? Do you think of yourself as a victim?

February 24, 2011

Cowboys and Outliers

Book club last night. We read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. What a fabulous book! I love ideas ~ that’s why I love TED, the website that highlights ideas. In fact, Malcolm has a fabulous TED talk about spaghetti sauce that you should immediately shirk work to watch!

Malcolm’s detractors have accused him of dumbing things down, of stating the obvious, of not being “academic” enough, of logical fallacy, and of focusing too much on anecdotal evidence. To that I say pshaw! Yes, he’s not academic ~ that’s his charm. He has the amazing ability to take fascinating academic research (giving the people full credit) and then telling a great story about it, simplifying it all in such a way that it strikes most readers as, dang!, why didn’t I think of that before. Fascinating stuff. I have ordered ALL his books.

But what I wanted to talk about today is one idea out of Outliers from Chapter 6, Harlan, Kentucky, “Die Like a Man, Like Your Brother Did!” He begins the chapter by describing a family feud, much like the Hatfields and McCoys, in Harlan, Kentucky. Generation after generation, relatives shoot and kill other relatives of Howard and Turner clans. Malcolm’s contention is that this is an example of a Culture of Honor. Cultures of Honor take root in marginally fertile areas with herding societies, like Scotland and Ireland and Greece and Italy and the Basque region of Spain. The idea is that farming is a cooperative society, while herding is much more singular, and a herdsman has to worry about an animal being stolen and is under constrant threat. He’s aggressive (and it is a “he”) and he can’t be seen as weak. Reputation is everything. The people who settled this area of Kentucky are of Scotch-Irish descent, and plus they live on marginal land, thus keeping the tradition alive. (Middle Eastern countries who stone to death women who have been raped, which besmirches the family’s honor, is also a prime example. Another example is the Godfather movies, which I’ve been watching almost obsessively lately.)

What really struck me was that this was also my life, to some extent, growing up on a Western ranch. The Myth of the Cowboy is very much a Culture of Honor. All you have to do is read a Western to get that. And people who live in the West who revere the cowboy naturally take on a culture of honor. In fact, there’s a huge movement right now about ethics and values called Cowboy Ethics, based on the books of James P. Owen. I think the State of Wyoming just adopted it as law. (Here’s a video about it - very moving, but troubling too for me.) Ranching in Wyoming is a marginal proposition because we have such little rainfall and therefore so little vegetation. We’re a herding culture, as far as ranching is concerned.

I think I’ve mentioned on this blog about our family’s feud. The story as I’ve heard it goes like this: When my grandfather passed away in the 40s, my dad and my uncle became partners on the ranch. Now, the ranch could barely support one family much less two. And, the story goes, that my dad was my grandfather’s favorite and my uncle was my grandmother’s favorite, and because my grandpa died, my uncle had the run of the place. He very much wanted to be John Wayne, the Culture ~ dare I say Cult ~ of Honor. So in the 80s my family decided we wanted no part of it and tried to split the ranch. What followed was the family feud, much like the Hatfields and McCoys, between my family and my uncle’s family. No one was ever shot and killed, true, but it came close. People were beaten up, dogs were shot, people tried to run over other people with cars, things like that. My dad and my brother-in-law, I’m convinced, died because of the stress of it all (my dad from cancer and my brother-in-law from a massive heart attack). Today, none of my side of the family ranches, though my brother dabbles.

Yes, there’s a huge upside to Culture of Honor. It’s about an ideal, about being a good ethical person, about having personal pride when you don’t have much else. However, there’s a huge downside too. It justifies might makes right (see the Johnson County War) and the oppression of minorities and women and many other things. It glorifies violence. Human life is worth less than honor.

I can’t help but focus on the downside. A Culture of Honor is a man’s world, and being female means you ain’t worth spit. Women try many ways to find worth in this culture. Some submit and wholeheartedly shoulder the mantle of second-class citizen and their identity is solely derived from the men in their lives and from their children. Religion fits nicely with this vision. However, other women try to rebel. They may become promiscuous (sexual power), they may try to be men (because men innately have power and worth), they may turn themselves inside out trying to find ways to have worth. How many times have you heard the descriptions of pioneer women? Tough old broad. Mind of her own. You wouldn’t know that she wore dresses when she was young. Could give birth and then go out and feed cows. Etc., etc. Often, they’re described by their masculine traits.

(FYI There are only two women in Malcolm's book.  One richest person in the world who gets ONE LINE, and then Malcolm's mother, who gets the epilogue.)

And what about if you’re a minority or if you’re gay? Another identity that fits nowhere in the puzzle.

It’s so great when you come across an explanation, a tool, that fits so well with your experience of life and explains things in a new way!

Question of the Day: Did you grow up in a Culture of Honor?

February 23, 2011

Stephen Elliott’s Bravery

Stephen Elliott’s daily email from The Rumpus is fascinating and deserves a blog post all its own (sign up for it on the upper right of the home page) ~ as The Rumpus is The Bomb ~ but I wanted to expand on something Stephen said in yesterday’s email, a subject near and dear to my heart.  Here's what Stephen said:
Someone said I was brave for being so open about things and I assured them I am not brave. A week ago I was in a cafe with a friend and he said he had that insecurity. Maybe from being bullied as a child. I thought, If you've never been deeply afraid, so afraid you were shaking and irrational and the strength drained from your body so you could hardly grip a pen. If you've never felt that then how could you know cowardice? And when someone told you they were a coward how could you dispute them. Unless you were able to say, I know cowardice. Unless you were able to say, I've stammered in front of an audience, been struck across the mouth without lifting my arms to defend myself, heard someone laugh in the background.
Let me back up a step. Once, when I was a kid, one of my older sisters said, “You don’t know what it’s like to really go hungry.” It’s something that has always stuck with me. I really don’t. Sure, I’ve been on diets, but I’ve never truly been without food, and I don’t think she has either, really. The point is that I’ve never lived where there is true famine or so poorly that I didn’t have access to food. That’s something I’ll never truly know.

That has to change you, truly starving, in a way that is irreversible. You take on a terrible knowledge about the uncertainty of the world that you can't know otherwise. Your body asserts itself and, I imagine, takes over your whole being. It’s one thing if you’re a religious asthete and give up food for those reasons ~ I think denying yourself in these circumstances is a badge of courage, part of the point of it all. However, if say you’re a breastfeeding mother and you can’t get enough sustenance to produce enough milk that your baby starves. My god. That brings with it a horrible kind of knowledge about humanity and about mortality. How can you live through something like that and still believe in the good in people and in the world? It reduces someone to a certain type of emotional poverty and poverty of hope.

I like the line in the above quote, “If you've never been deeply afraid, so afraid you were shaking and irrational and the strength drained from your body so you could hardly grip a pen. If you've never felt that then how could you know cowardice?” It’s easy to be brave when you’ve never really been challenged, and it’s also really easy to pass snap surficial judgment on people, which is much more about you than it is about them. As Stephen says, you cannot know courage until you’ve been so afraid your body has rebelled. (The only comparable thing in my life has probably been my fear of flying, where I’m convinced I’m going to die.)

So, like the above quote, how can you possibly think to know hunger if you’ve never been hungry, really truly hungry?

Having said that, I’d like also to assert the power of imagination. Even if you haven’t felt these things, you can imagine them and extrapolate from your own experiences. I think there’s value in that. Because what’s the opposite? Living comfortably in your own little world and passing judgment on others? And yes I do think it takes a certain amount of courage to reach beyond your comfort zone to try to imagine what life is like for other people, sometimes a lot of courage.

Writing about experiences requires this imagination. I’ve never been a man, but I try really hard to make my male characters authentic. That’s where the power of imagination comes in. Some things I’m better at than others, as are all writers, and I’ve been told I get some things more right than others. But it’s worth the effort even in the hard things, the points of view foreign to you, to try to bridge that gap. What’s the alternative? Books about you and only you?

And if these experiences are truly your own, something you know, you’ll be even more convincing in the telling of it, and you’ll let other people know what it’s like to truly be brave, to truly be hungry.

Question of the Day: Do you allow yourself to range widely from your own experience?

February 22, 2011

An Interesting Cogitation on Art

An interesting cogitation on art with a capital A by photographer Erin Sparler.  I love her breaking it down into concept, craftmanship, and innovation.  In other words, it has to be a good concept well done with enough of the new and enough of the old.  No small task. 

I'm going to have to think how this applies to writing, because it certainly does.  Is there something I think has been left out? Hmmm ...

Questions of the Day:  What do you think makes art?

February 21, 2011

Putting Yourself on the Page

I thought of one after another idea for a blog post this morning, and then rejected them all. So I returned, as I always do, to the running list of possible topics I keep adding to. It’s funny ~ this list is like the running list of ideas for short stories and novels I keep. Some ideas are timeless and I always remember them, but some fade away. When I wrote the idea down, it seemed really original and interesting, but when I look back on it, I think, what was it about that? I don’t even remember. That’s why I sometimes lament lost ideas. If I don’t strike when it’s hot, it might go away. But this comforts me when I lose an idea because I don’t write it down: If it’s a good idea, a lasting idea, it’ll come back to me.

The idea I chose from my list is this great disclaimer from the bottom of an email I saw recently:
This e-mail is a natural product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects nor should it be used to judge the intelligence of the sender in any adverse manner.
I love this! It’s witty and fun and shows the character of the sender. It personalized the sender ~ as opposed to depersonalizes, something we often try to do in "objective" writing, especially professional writing.

It strikes me that that’s often what we’re trying to do in fiction writing. We’re trying to put the person in our writing, be it ourselves or our characters. Another word for characterization. Periodically, I help my brilliant engineer brother with his reports and proposals, and he does the same thing. He tries to make the dry parts human, to connect on a personal as well as a professional objective level. And that’s one of the secrets to his success, his ability to relate to people and to bring people together into teams (against the engineering stereotype).

Yes, we’re trying to put character on the page, but an even broader thing, a thing we don’t talk about much, is we’re trying to put ourselves on the page. I’m not talking strictly memoir. I’m saying, it’s as if we’re at a big dinner party and we’re trying to be a good and amusing guest. Our stories represent us in the dinner party that is the reading world, and we need to be good guests.

I read this recently on a New York Times book review:
Simply, [taste is] the extent to which we take pleasure in the company of the author — or rather, a facsimile thereof, a phantom version composed of and subsisting on words alone.
It’s so true. You’ve all read books, I’m sure, where you’ve thought, I really would not like to hang out with this person. You’ve also read books where you’d give your eye teeth to hang with the author for only 30 seconds - and you’ve hung out in a long line just to have a moment’s glance from that person, maybe an autograph. Then there’s the person who appears one way on the page, but then you find out what a horrible person they are in real life.

I always put something a little odd and interesting in my bios. I think you need the regular thing, published in such and such, but you’re also trying to be interesting, so I’ll put in a line like, “Having been raised on a ranch, Tamara appreciates indoor plumbing,” or something else odd.

I’m struggling with this is a slightly different form right now: I’m trying to balance third person limited point of view with a stronger narrator than I’m used to. So there’s layer upon layer. There’s this character’s point of view and then that character’s, then there’s the narrator’s, and then there’s me, the author, out in real space. Quite a balancing act.

Then there’s the differentiation between being likable and being interesting and compelling. You don’t want all your characters to be likable. They’ll come across as namby pamby people pleasers. Some of them can be, but they should actually have less likable traits, if they’re going to come across as full characters. What I puzzle about a lot is not so much likability but how to make them compelling. What makes the “best” characterization? They can’t have all the traits of a real person because a real person is too complex, but they can’t be a stereotype either (main characters, that is).

And you as the author are often equated with your main character. Sometimes this is a fair comparison, and if this is the case, most people want to be liked and don’t want to show their warts. You want to be that good guest at the party. But you have to resist this urge with your characters to some extent or it’ll come across flat.

Representation on all levels is a very complex issue, one particularly difficult for people-pleasers like me.

Questions of the Day: Are you of the interesting-dinner-guest school? Or of the art-comes-first-please-people-later school?

February 18, 2011

A Great Line

Now here's a sentence:

These footnotes are possibly the dullest ever written.

That's saying something.  From an interesting review of Elizabeth Bishop's collected letters to the New Yorker and other related books on the New York Times.

February 16, 2011

Kevin Canty’s Everything

Oh my gosh. I’ve had Kevin Canty’s Everything setting on my bookshelf for a long time, and I picked it up last night. Wow. It immediately drew me in. It’s got both that Western sparity that I love (a la Hemingway and McCarthy and Tom McGuane) but it’s also lush in interiority and subtle keen-eyed real-to-life detail and humanity. And the dialog is spot on, spot on. It’s unornamented but barbed as hell. Kevin, you rock! Here’s the beginning, for your reading pleasure.

The fifth of July, they went down to the river, RL and June, sat on the rocks with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and talked about Taylor. The fifth of July was Taylor's birthday and they did this every year. He would have been fifty. RL had been his boyhood friend and June was married to him. He'd been dead eleven years.

This side channel used to be one of Taylor's favorite fishing spots, but five or six years before, a beer distributor from Sacramento had built a twenty-room log home right on the bank and then drove a Cat D6 into the river and piled up a wing dam, to keep his house from falling into the drink. This pushed all the current out of the side channel and into the main river. A few last big fish lurked down deep in the channel but mainly it was suckers. Still, it was a pretty spot to sit on a long evening, the shade of the tall cottonwoods slowly deepening into green water. A pretty spot if you turned away from the log palazzo. They sat on the rocks and watched the water trickle by, the cool splash of river water over gravel.

I wish . . . said June.

You wish for what? RL asked her.

I wish I had a cigarette, she said, and laughed. June smoked exactly one day a year, and this was the day. RL got one out, gave it to her, lit it. He was smoking a cigar himself. He had bought the pack specially for her. The two of them stared at the smoke as it curled through the still air. RL could just barely hear the trucks passing on the interstate, a mile away. The sound always made him lonely, the thought of all that highway, all that American night out there.

These anniversaries, said June. They keep sneaking up on me. He's been gone, now, longer than I ever knew him.

That's not right.

No, I did the math last night. He was twenty-eight when I met him. twenty-eight to thirty-nine, thirty-nine to fifty. It doesn't seem like that long but it is.

Long time gone, said RL. I still, sometimes — I feel like I'm going to walk around a corner and see him on the sidewalk. You know, just sitting around the house, and I think, maybe I'll give Taylor a call, see if he wants to go grab a beer. Down at the Mo Club. See if I can borrow his pickup.

It's not like that for me, said June. Not anymore.

She reached for the square bottle of whiskey and took a demure pull on it. RL admired the workings of her throat, the little hollow at the base of her neck, her fine collarbone. She was younger than Taylor and him and still quite a good-looking girl.

I've been going to church again lately, she said.

Get the hell out of here.

I'm not kidding. Sunday morning ten o'clock.

Which one?

June blushed lightly. She was one of those transparent blondes where every feeling showed on her skin, pale or passionate. In tears she turned a blotchy red. RL had seen her in tears, not often.

I'm going to the Catholic one, said June. Weird, I know. A couple of the girls from work got me going there.

They got you all signed up? Human sacrifice in the basement and everything?

I think they quit doing that.

That's not what I hear.

It's safe to say that you would hate it, June said. I mean, you would hate even the good parts, which are all about doing good things and being nice to people in Central America and so on. They're so [expletive] earnest! But, you know, that's what I like about them.

You've always had an earnest streak.

And you've always been a cynical bastard.

With a heart as big as the great outdoors, RL said. That's me.

No, June said. That's somebody else.

February 15, 2011


Just an observation today. Have you thought about how much faith it takes to begin a writing endeavor? Or a scene or a paragraph or even a sentence? I’m not a traditionally religious person, but in this I believe.

You’re stepping off a ledge into thin air when you embark on your task. You have to believe that the process works, as it always has, and will not fail you. You need faith in your muse or higher power and the goddess or whatever you call it, the source of your creativity. You have to believe that what you write has worth and that maybe it might find an audience. You have to believe that writing makes a difference in the world. Above all else, you have to believe in yourself ~ writing is selfish in the best and worst senses of the term.

Maybe another way to look at is as trust. You have to trust the world and the process and yourself and your audience.

This is why I sometimes tell other writers: “Keep the faith, man.”

Question of the Day:  How do you "keep the faith"?

February 14, 2011

Let’s Be Hard on Ourselves, Shall We?

I’m recovering from another cold that took me to my knees on Saturday. My husband observed, “Why do you always get a cold right before you’re scheduled to have a writing weekend?” Why indeed?

But, we must rise above these things, mustn’t we?

Off and on, I’ve been watching episodes of the A&E show Heavy, about morbidly obese people who make the commitment to change their lives. It actually has quite a lot in common with A&E’s show Intervention. It’s about addiction and how we sabotage ourselves in the name of escape.

The number one thing that strikes me about these shows is how much these people’s lives have in common. Of course, these shows are scripted like all reality shows, so there’s a certain amount of that, but in reality, there are common patterns. A huge trauma. Family enablers. People whose coping mechanisms are very destructive.

The other thing that strikes me is that it’s damn hard to recover. Damn hard. It often takes other people confronting the person, holding them accountable in a new way. The person has to be broken down, sort of like they are in the military, in order to be built back up. They have to be confronted with the severity of their problems and coping mechanisms. The people have setbacks, but they keep fighting.

For example, there’s the story of Travis. During the course of the 6-month training, his wife gives birth to a second son, he has to get a job, his house is broken into, his possessions get flooded out, yet he still looses 98 lbs. He started at 431.2 lbs and gets down to 333.0 lbs. Don’t you just want to stand up a cheer?! Don’t you just admire the heck out him?

Writing is a lot like dieting actually. I mean long-term writing, like writing a novel or trying for long-term success. The major decision (“I am going to lose weight” or “I am going to write a novel”) is the easy part. The hard part is the small everyday decisions that face you every hour every minute of the day. “I’m stressed right now ~ do I give in to the cravings to numb myself with food the way I’ve always done? Or do I stay strong and make the healthy choice?” “I have ten things to do for work and for the kids and, oh, don’t forget my husband ~ do I do all that and not write at all today?”

Writing and dieting have the same sorts of out-there esoteric rewards. Why write a novel? Because I want to have the satisfaction of completing it, because I want fame and fortune, because I know I was meant to. Why diet? Because it’ll make me feel better, because I’ll be more attractive, because I’ll have the satisfaction of completing something hard. See what I mean?

Certainly, I get more day-to-day reward from writing. I mean, when I’m in my writing, I love it! It’s the getting started that’s the hard part and takes the same sort of willpower as dieting.

But I’m going to take courage from the example of Travis and so many others like him who decide to confront those demons and to be hard on themselves and to just do it, damn it!

Questions of the Day: Complete the sentence, “Writing is …”

February 11, 2011

Back on that Horse

Well, I'm writing again.  Let me say that again.  I'm writing fiction again!!!  Yay!

Last night I read through what I'd written in my wonderful headlong rush, and it was long enough ago that I could read it with some objectivity.  You know what?  I felt like I was in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing.  I felt pulled along by a good strong current, with enough eddies and digressions that the story had depth.

Maybe I'm not half bad. :-)

Happy writing!

February 10, 2011


I don’t usually write about politics, and I won’t today, not directly. What I want to talk about is courage.

What we do, us writers, takes a lot of courage. It obviously doesn’t take any special bravery to physically sit down at a desk and type something in. No, I’m talking emotional bravery, commitment to your art, the courage of your convictions. And if you want your stuff to be any good, you have to push even more, beyond the fear, and lay yourself naked and defenseless on the page. The best work is when you write about what makes you nervous, what you’re ashamed of, your deepest darkest secrets. As Steve Almond says, “Run screaming toward the pain.”

This is something I try to do with all my writing. I have to say, I don’t generally worry about what people think, even my mom. (Hi, Mom!) I write the subjects that fascinate me and tweak me. However, the courage that often challenges me is the emotional courage of confronting things inside me. Those really hard things. Like writing about when we lost our first baby in utero at six months. It took a long time and lots of writers block to get to that one. Finally I just had to sit down and write as if I were talking through an outline. That’s the only way I could get started. It’s things like this, the painful things, that challenge me the most.

Why am I writing about this? A report about the Wyoming Legislature by Rachel Maddow.  As I’m sure you know, Wyoming is conservative and republican, and I’m a liberal democrat. So I have some differences of opinion with some of my fellow citizens. But this report made me so proud to be a Wyomingite!

This story is not going to turn out the way you expect it, by the way.  I won't summarize it.  I'll let you go watch it.

Whether you’re republican or democrat, whether you’re for or against abortion, these legislators’ courage to speak (personal) truth to power is amazing. I mean, Rep. Sue Wallis’s courage to tell her own personal story ON THE FLOOR of the Wyoming House.

Oh, and there’s that legislator (Texas, was it?) that stood and told his story in order to encourage gay youths. I can’t seem to find it online at the moment. Such courage.  (I found it. Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns.)

I’m going to remember these every time I’m sniveling in my cups.

Question of the Day: Who else do you know who’s had such courage?

February 8, 2011

Appearances vs. “Reality”

My wonderful mother-in-law Jean has been visiting all week. She was going to be helping look after the kids while I was at AWP, but we got to visit instead. She’s a book fan-atic from way back, and she belongs to at least two book clubs, so we have a grand time talking books and authors.

She was telling me about David Pelzer’s A Child Called It. I hadn’t read it. It’s a memoir about David’s childhood. His mother singled him out from his brothers for significant abuse (making him eating feces and puke, making him drink ammonia, burning him, and much more). Really rough stuff.

As an aside, I told Mom that after having kids I couldn’t stand to read these horrible things any more. It just tears me up too much. This may be lack of courage on my part ~ I know the world’s a horrible place sometimes, but being so starkly reminded of it is hard. This is the reason I hardly ever read the newspaper any more.

Anyway, Mom and I were looking David Pelzer up on the web and came across the controversy surrounding the book. The parents are dead, and one brother claims it never happened and another claims it did and once David was taken away to foster care the mother focused on this other brother, who is now coming out with his own memoir. Another part of the controversy is that people claim that David made it up almost entirely and only for money (a la the unscrupulous James Frey).

One thing that struck me was the vehemence of some of his detractors. It was as if they felt personally betrayed by David, that he had said something that offended them way beyond the claims of a mere book. The very act of reading the book violated them in some way. Often, they would point out things that seemed factually incorrect, such as that David could remember some things, but he couldn’t remember exactly what his mom looked like. Well, if I had a mom that was that horrible, I’d forget as much about her as I could. They pointed out a bunch of other things. It was as if they so wanted the world to be black and white, not the complex thing that it is. Plus, it is a huge case of blaming the victim ~ which is very very wrong. So what if both are true: that David stretched things just a bit and he is good at self-promotion yet he was horribly abused as well?

I also read a New York Times review of the memoir called A Box of Darkness by Sally Ryder Brady. It’s about Sally and her husband Upton, who was a publishing executive and was also closeted and gay but had affairs. Much like the Pelzer memoir, what went on within the home was very different from outward appearances. There was the life of the family and then what the world saw. And not only that, each member of the family saw family life differently.

Which brings me to: You just don’t know what goes on in a family. Just because someone doesn’t look like an abuser ~ and what does an abuser look like, exactly? ~ doesn’t mean they aren’t. (Which reminds me of Mary Gaitskill’s wonderful story in this week’s New Yorker). Just as you don't know what goes on in a family, you never know what’s going on inside someone either.

And that’s why I’m a writer.

Questions of the Day: Where’s the line of truth and fiction for you in memoir?

February 7, 2011


I ended up not going to AWP, mostly because I didn’t want to be stranded in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport for the duration.  It was 61 degrees below zero with wind chill here last Wednesday.

Okay, on one hand, I’d like to totally ignore the fact that I’ve slipped on this blog and my writing and just plunge merrily in as if nothing happened.  (I take my responsibilities in these areas seriously, so I feel bad that I haven’t been true to my word.)  However, maybe it helps someone if I talk about these things, even if it feels whiney and unbecoming and all too revealing.

So I get up and go about my day thinking, okay, today’s the day I’m going to pull out of this.  Then something happens ~ I get a bunch of assignments at work or the kids have another scheduled thingy or I think about all the stuff I’m supposed to do and all the emotional debts I have to pay and I just can’t face it.  It’s as if, rather than the usual bouncy and tough vulcanized rubber, my supporting structures are brittle cindered paper, ready to be crushed at the slightest puff of breeze.  I’m just having a hard time bouncing back.

I suppose it’s depression but I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why.  It’s like the character from the movie Grand Canyon says about being hysterical: “The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people ARE hysterical twenty four hours a day.”   And it feels really shameful to say this.

So what am I doing about it?  Baby steps.  I’m taking the behaviorist’s approach ~ changing my behavior in the hopes that it’ll change my mood.  I’m trying to be healthy by eating right and starting to run again. I’m doing this blog, I’m writing, I’m trying to engage.  I keep going on the hope that the act of smiling will help me to feel like smiling.

Sorry to be such a bummer, folks. Will think of an insightful and thought-provoking post tomorrow.

Questions of the Day:  What do you do to pull yourself out of this sucking maw?  Or maybe you just have the good graces not to talk about it. *sigh*