Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Substance Abuser's Wife

In choosing her subject, it's not a bad idea for the memoirist to imagine that many others in her audience have undergone the same or a similar experience, and to write with that in mind. Any assumption to the contrary may prove fatal.

Here, the subject is living with a substance abuser, and the substance is cocaine. Assuming no shortage of coke addicts in the world, one may also assume a proximate number of used and abused significant others to go with them. The theme, in other words, is familiar, so much so that there are even organizations like Al-alon and Cocaine Anonymous devoted to it. True, not all spouses, lovers, and other co-victims of substance abuse have written or intend to write their memoirs. But for better or worse more than a few of them have, or will.

And there've been very good books about drug abuse, both from the point of view of the abuser, and from that of someone emotionally attached to him or her. Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book plunges us into the mind—and even the philosophy—or a heroin junkie living on a gravel scow in New York harbor. Presented to us as a novel in the form of a journal, it begins:
My scow is tied up in the canal at Flushing, N.Y., alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works, has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.

Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.
Turning from heroin to its older cousin, opium, there have been memoirs going all the way back to De Quincy, whose Confessions of an English Opium Eater is the first and most famous. Novel with Cocaine, set in Moscow on the eve of the Russian revolution, does for that time and place about what Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City did for Manhattan and cocaine in the late 1980's. As for narratives about or by people living with abusive family members, there's been no shortage of those, either. Jeanette Wall's Glass Castle is a recent example. In it she chronicles (among many other things) growing up with an eccentric mother and alcoholic father. It opens:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
Right from the start each of the books I've quoted offers to us something above or beyond substance abuse or its direct or collateral consequences. Trocchi gives us the atmosphere of the New York waterfront, with its deserted motor cranes and sun-spackled cinderblocks, while Wall juxtaposes, to heartbreaking effect, party-going yuppie with dumpster-diving Mom.

Which leads to the next good question for the memoirist to ask herself: What can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? How will it be different not only in its particulars, but essentially—substantially, stylistically, and/or structurally, so that readers won't have read anything quite like it?

The first page under discussion here calls no attention to its style, nor does it break any formal ground. And yet by means of her italicized opening paragraph the author does answer, or tries to, the question: what can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? She does so by front-loading her story with a nod to the recent Bosnian war where, we are told, she met her future, coke-snorting husband. Like many an italicized opening, this one is meant to grab our attention, and does. But it's the war in Sarajevo that grabs it, not the husband, or cocaine abuse, and the scene in Roman type that follows it (and that is itself a teaser—the author plunging us in media res into the ostensible heart of her story), comes as a let-down. We start with a Balkan war, and end up—or rather begin again—sitting on a stateside toilet rifling a man's wallet, one that, incidentally, has nothing special in or about it.

In other respects the italicized first paragraph is distracting. For one thing it lacks focus, wanting at once to be "in a war zone" in Sarajevo and in a "pretty Connecticut suburb"; to be married and divorced; to plunge us into a dark past but also to revel in the "precious peace" of the present tense. The author wants it all ways, in few words. Or she's not sure what she wants. Nor is the reader.

Like the italicized paragraph preceding it, the scene, though quite well written beyond the first stuttering paragraph, is a red herring. So we return again to the thorny question: what does this memoir really have to offer? What will it be about other than living with a drug addict? Because just as most of us are better off not having to live with drug addicts, we can also live without more memoirs about doing—or having done—so.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Memoir, or Autobiography?

Ask four people the difference between a memoir and an autobiography and odds are you'll get four different answers. For Gore Vidal a memoir is "how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history." Will Rogers put it this way, "Memoir means when you put down the good things you ought to have done and leave out the bad ones you did do." Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian, boils the difference down to that between telling (autobiography) and showing (memoir).

Nor do dictionaries shed much light on the matter. According to the Oxford English, an autobiography is "the writing of one's own history; the story of one's life written by himself," while a memoir is "a person's written account of incidents in his own life, the persons whom he has known, and the transactions or movements in which he has been concerned; an autobiographical record."

For me the difference is mainly one of audience and intention. Autobiographies are penned by the famous or infamous for an audience interested to hear their life stories; memoirs are written by the relatively obscure or by those who have merely brushed up against fame, with the intent of treating a specific broader theme or issue with which the author is intimately and by personal experience acquainted, but which is not purely personal.

Which is a long way of saying that a memoir is about something other than the life of its author. If you're Dolly Parton or Bono, you write your autobiography. If you're somebody like me, and feel so inclined, you write a memoir.

Memoirist Nora Gallagher sums up more succinctly still the secret to writing good memoirs. "It's not about you." When, in Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy writes about losing half her jaw to cancer and the ramifications of being permanently disfigured, she's not merely talking of her own personal ordeal; she speaks to any and all of us who've ever been self-conscious of our looks or suffered rejection or endured physical torment and pain, or who've been torn between who we are, and what we wish to be—in her case, someone with a whole face and not one torn in two by cancer. Singularly horrible though her experience may be, still, there's much in it that we can all relate to. And it's the relatable part that is her book's true and worthy subject.

The first page here is from the memoir of a pilot. The most famous example of the genre (if it can be called that) is Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Saint-Exupery. Here is how Saint-Exupery opens his memoir:
In 1926 I was enrolled as a student airline pilot by the Lactécoère Company, the predecessors of Aéropostale (now Air France) in the operation of the line between Toulouse, in southwestern France, and Dakar, in French West Africa. I was learning the craft, undergoing an apprenticeship served by all young pilots before they were allowed to carry the mails. We took ships up on trial spins, made meek little hops between Toulouse and Perpignan, and had dreary lessons in meteorology in the freezing hangar. We lived in fear of the mountains of Spain, over which we had yet to fly, and in awe of our elders.
Note how quickly the focus here switches from the narrator to his fellow pilots in the aggregate ("It's not about you."). From this opening paragraph on Saint-Exupery's book will of course be about him, but it will mostly be about pilots, flying, the mail service, the poetry of land as seen from the air . . .

By contrast, judging by its opening paragraph, the memoir being considered here, though quite well-written, is strictly personal. And that's the problem. The author has put his best foot forward, so he thinks, and its an autobiographical foot. It begs the question: what's in it for the reader? Why should a perfect stranger care that so-and-so was offered a job at TWA—a company that doesn't even exist anymore? How relatable is that?

From there the narrator treats us to the intricacies of the probationary period —but this, too, is treated not historically, or even nostalgically (by way of saying how things were different back then), but personally: this is what happened in my case, to me, at my airline. Fascinating? Yes, assuming that the reader has a personal reason to be fascinated—if she happens to have known the author, for instance. Otherwise, in spite of the good prose, I'm afraid this won't fly.

But solutions may be at hand. One might be to follow Saint-Exupery's example and switch the focus to the aggregate over the individual, to make this a memoir about flying for the airlines back then—not one man's story, but the story of an industry in its relatively glamorous days.

Dead Baby Stories

In his famous introduction to "The Nigger of the Narcissus," Joseph Conrad describes his task as a fiction writer thus: ". . . to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see." He might have added to make you sweat, as this opening does in more ways than one.

Fiction writers, our job isn't to teach or preach morality, decipher cryptic codes, deliver good or bad news by way of spiritual bromides or doomsday messages, or to explain the meaning of life. It isn't even to "tell" stories. It's to render experience, not to explain what happened to Goldilocks when she awoke to the three bears, but to put us in her shoes and let us see (hear, feel) for ourselves.

We harvest experience through the senses: sight, taste, sound, feeling, smell. Add the subjective organ of imagination and the rationalizing intellect, and you've got the deluxe suite of sensory equipment. This opening scene, where a young husband and wife argue over whether or not to engage a yard worker, appeals aggressively to an array of senses.

While the first, single-line paragraph rather coyly telegraphs events to come, the second embeds us firmly in a muggy summer day “with the air so sodden that, even before noon . . . perspiration had pooled itchily at the elastic of my boxer shorts.” File this under Too Much Information, if you like, but it’s information that gets us where we live, namely in our skins, making us want to wiggle out from under our own moist undergarments, or anyway inviting us to squirm a bit at the thought of moisture accumulating there. It’s disgusting—and meant to be. This discomfort is all in keeping with a scene that has the narrator cringing—not only under the influence of sweaty underwear, but at the wrong end of a discourse on lawn maintenance that has evolved into a referendum on his masculinity.

More senses are stroked in rapid succession: the "balding patch" of a lawn, the "dry words" of a question, the yardman's truck blasting "weird staccato rhythms," its "tangy, fretless bass thump[ing] off the sides of trees and the singer's high-pitched yowl flutter[ing] up in the tall branches." The only senses left wanting here are taste and smell, but that's okay: one doesn't write fiction by the numbers.

There's also something intrinsically frightening about a scene that with its first sentence invokes dead babies only to present us soon thereafter with a couple whose own one-year old lies dozing nearby in her stroller. If this isn't ominous, it should be. Dead baby stories are the one thing the parents of an infant daughter certainly don't want to hear. Not only does the yard worker (whose impending arrival casts a shadow over the scene like Hickey's in "The Iceman Cometh") bring tales of infant death in the bed of his pickup truck; he nearly brings the genuine article by almost running over the baby carriage.

It's too bad this is written in first person; it loses some of the edge it would otherwise have. By his mere comic presence he baffoonish narrator assures us nothing truly tragic will follow. Were this in third person, the gain in terror would more than make up for any sacrificed humor.

That said, one remains reluctant to discover just how central the "dead baby" trope is to what's coming, and more afraid still to discover that it may turn out to be more than a trope. Which, of course, is what will keep us readers, born rubberneckers that we are, reading.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Up in a Tree

From up in a dogwood tree a young girl watches her mother weed a garden, while down on the ground below her less tree-worthy friend Peggy watches. This opening scene from a story evoking a young girl's world, with its grudgingly shared awarenesses and insights ("I sighed, because how to climb a tree was so simple—you just did it—but I knew I would have to show her how, again.") puts me in mind of Dan Pope's delightful 2003 novel, In the Cherry Tree—and not just because of the tree, but because that book, too, does a beautiful job of rendering childhood on the verge of adolescence.

Pope's novel opens thus:
Summer days began without a plan. You got up. You had a bowl of cereal. You went outside. A lawn mower hummed. Ducks passed overhead in perfect V formation like World War Two bombers. A dog barked, and another dog barked back. Somebody was hammering nails into a roof. Somebody was bouncing a basketball three streets away. You heard the echo, not the sound itself. A cat crept across the grass an disappeared beneath a hedge. It was hot. The sun was strong. The crickets made a seething noise. A sprinkler came on and made a quiet rain sound when the water hit the grass and then a louder rain sound when the water hit the street.
The effectiveness of Pope's rendering is achieved in large part through a style that leans heavily on blunt declarative sentences ("You got up") that echo the thudding rhythms of a grade school primer ("See Jane run"). Through such artless sentences his fictional world—one readers of post-Baby Boomer vintage will recognize immediately—declares itself to us with the stark immediacy of a series of street signs: "Caution: Children at Play." No time for fancy wordplay or syntactical pyrotechnics here, only what is—or was: a world experienced almost exclusively through the senses by characters who, because they are still largely children, are natural sensualists.

Less brilliantly, the given opening page achieves a like effect. The writing, though not as stylistically pointed or original, is assured; there are few wasted words, and the sentence offer syntactical variety without self-conscious effort. ("Landing was almost as good as climbing a different kind of scary.") One can quibble that the verb "to be" is overused—and not, as Dan Brown overuses it, intentionally for its plodding, blunt-instrument rhythms, but simply through oversight. But that's a nit-pick.

I do question opening with a snatch of disembodied dialogue, a tactic that I almost always find disagreeable, as it intends by way of withholding context to catch readers by surprise and momentarily disorient them, and it does. But to what end? I have no idea who is speaking, nor does the first paragraph answer the question. I must read on to the next paragraph to even discover the presence of another character, and beyond that to discover who has spoken. Would it not be as good or better to say up front, "From down on the ground Peggy shouted up to me, 'Do you like your mom?'"?

The question is important, as it points to what appears to lie at the heart of this opening and very probably of the story itself: a question of mothers and their relationships to their daughters, and specifically of the tree-climbing narrator's relationship with her mom. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the story opens with the protagonist having gained the perspective offered by height. I'm reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's brilliant sketch, "Sights from a Steeple," which begins, "So! I have climbed high, and my reward is small." Being high up off the ground may give us perspective, but it also cuts us off, alienates us, turns us into lonesome gods.

The question lights up this otherwise nicely rendered but rudimentary scene with implications that all may not be sunshine and dogwood pedals on Covewood Drive: that there are issues here that this story intends to unearth. I would keep reading.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That First Glimpse

If plot is the backbone of fiction, that which gives fiction its structure and movement, then scenes are plot's vertebrae. A concatenation of causally related scenes add up to a plot. But beyond their technical function, scenes are what we're most likely to remember about a work of fiction; at the very least, they are what we're most likely to discuss with others. Remember that scene in (fill in title) where (fill in event) happens?

Think of a particular novel or story and what you remember most about it, and odds are you'll remember a scene. I'm thinking of Catch-22, of the scene where Yossarian rips open wounded Snowden's flak vest and the "secret" he's been keeping spills out of him in the form of a heap of shredded intestines. Or the scene in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion where Hank Stamper tries to save his lumberjack brother from drowning by breathing air into his mouth under water. Or the scene in Anna Karenina where Vronsky rips his shirt open.

Of all the scenes in fiction, none play a more crucial role than "First Glimpse" scenes—scenes were key characters see each other for the very first time. Here, too, examples spring to mind, like this one of Ishmael's first glimpse of Ahab:
He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over-runningly wasted all of the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness . . . His bone-leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship's ever pitching prow.
Another first glimpse, this one from Zorba the Greek:
. . . the stranger opened the door [of the cafe] with a determined thrust of his arm. He passed between the tables with a rapid, springy step, and stopped in front of me.

"Traveling?" he asked. "Where to? Trusting to providence?"

"I’m making for Crete. Why do you ask?"

"Taking me with you?"

I looked at him carefully. He had hollow cheeks, a strong jaw, prominent cheekbones, curly gray hair, bright, piercing eyes.

"Why? What should I do with you?

He shrugged his shoulders. "Why! Why!" he exclaimed with disdain."Can’t a man do anything without a why? Just like that, because he wants to? Well, take me, shall we say, as a cook. I can make soups you’ve never heard or thought of. . ."
And another—from Elizabeth Smart's novel (extended prose poem?) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, where the first glimpse is of the wife of the man with whom the narrator is hopelessly in love as she de-boards a bus:

But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusted as the untempted.
The first glimpse scene offered by this author's first page presents us with Ewan, a fellow student at the narrator's university "in a small town in Illinois." About Ewan by the end of this first page we know very little; that he is a fellow student we can only assume, since we're not told as much; in fact we're hardly told anything. We don't know what he looks like, or how he walks, or—when he speaks—how he speaks. We're told that he's a "guy"—something we can surmise from his name, and that at some point he will "latch on" to the narrator: but that point exists in the future, and has no bearing here.

If Ewan emerges as a character it's through his dialogue. "Are you for or against Pro-Choice, Lilli?" he asks the narrator one afternoon as she sits at the counter of her favorite coffee shop. If these aren't Ewan's first words to her, they're close to being so; anyway they successfully evoke a man who, to put it nicely, has little patience for decorum. Those less generous would call him tactless.

If only we could see Ewan as clearly as we hear him, the way we see Zorba strut into that cafe. Since Ewan's words are what characterize him, my inclination would be to lead off with his in your face inquiry, and take it from there.

As for the first paragraph, I'd cut it. It indulges the author with a gratuitous wish that her novel were a movie—and not just any movie, but one directed by Gus van Sant. But this fantasy gives nothing to readers: in fact it discourages them. Not only is the wish doomed; it's the wrong wish to hold out to lovers of fiction. If the novelist is really so intent on Gus van Sant and Matt Dillon, she should be writing a screenplay.