Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Contemporary American Autobiography
Someday, perhaps we will all look back on this point in time as being an aberration in history, a time filled with the self-importance of those who felt an uncompromising desire to tell the stories of their lives to an anonymous public in blog posts on the Internet.
I often think this way about myself, even when I recognize that the stories I tell, while deeply rooted in my own experience, are often told for some reason that sits entirely outside of myself. That is what the genre of “memoir” really does, does it not? It allows us to think about life and art and meaning through the lens of someone else’s experience. It is different than “autobiography,” because anyone, including those who are far from famous, can be the subject of the story that is being told.
My love affair with memoir was consummated when I was 18, but I suppose it began much earlier. It probably began with poetry, when I would read the words people had written about seemingly unimportant scenes or events in their lives while I was standing in the kitchen or the bathroom, because those broadsides from the 70s peppered the walls of my house the same way that tacky wallpaper peppered yours. I would brush my teeth, and Marvin Bell would yell at me: “No more fossils of eunuchs!” My family had inside jokes about the line “in thy infinite mercy let Neil drive the combine” from a poem by someone no one reading this knows existed. My kids eat dinner while looking at this, just like I did when I was a child:
UTAH, by M.J. Rychlewski
sandstone on cloudy days
it's hard to say
what she was but she was
smiling and came
in the heat of Moab
with a glass of A&W
yes we have salt and pepper
yes we're open most of the time
(my older brothers are like my uncles)
yes you can take 70 into 89
a girl in Kanab
who threw her eyes
and her hair
a cheap motel
why the Starlite everyone goes there
And what does that mean? That, my friends, is a story. A clear picture, an admonition that says, don’t you feel like you were THERE?
When I was 8, I wrote a story about my best friend moving to the Philippines after first grade, and it won an award. I thought it was just a child’s tale, this story called, simply, “Amy.” I never understood why adults would think it was good. I don’t have that story anymore, but I remember writing it, and how doing so made me feel like she wasn’t so far away, at least for the span of six pages.
I loved to read about other people’s lives. If someone could write well, offer me a nice turn of phrase or a really good last line (I still always read them first), I could read a book about someone watching paint dry. It didn’t matter how far removed the person’s experience was from my own. And I always loved to people-watch…not to make up stories about the people I was watching, but to catch the details, the mannerisms, the ways they talked or what they didn’t talk about or how they looked at each other or sideways at me. I was always just there, paying attention.
And then, perhaps in spite of myself, which is another story I suppose, I got into a nice little liberal arts college and was offered a really generous scholarship. We were required to pre-enroll in a freshman seminar; we had assignments over the summer, and the professor of that class would become our de-facto advisor until we decided otherwise once we actually figured out what the hell to do with our lives.
I enrolled in a course called “Contemporary American Autobiography.”
Over the summer, I read a book by Charles Baxter called First Light. I answered some questions about it in short essay form. I showed up at school, all long curly hair and Beastie Boys tshirt and clogs and excitement and romanticism and cluelessness, and I went to that class on my first day.
I loved it. I could write a post about that—about all the books we read, about how much fun it was for me to write short essays about them. I could write a post about the stories that the other students wrote about themselves for class assignments. Each week, the eccentric professor (someone I still write Christmas cards to, 20 years later) would pick one or two stories from the class, and we would spend half of the hour and a half discussing those pieces. There was this lovely intermingling of us kids, and our seemingly uninteresting lives, and the stories of published authors who won awards and hung out chain smoking at independent bookstores.
This post, however, is not about that. This post is about how HARD it was for me to write those assignments about myself. Creative writing, or writing in general, had always been my best thing. I could write poems or essays and get straight As without half trying. Hell, I practically stopped going to my AP English class my senior year of high school. I ditched that class all the time, wandered the streets, hung out in some kid’s pickup truck playing gin and probably having more intellectual conversations than I ever would have had inside those halcyon walls. Then I would nonchalantly consider whatever assignment I had, write some kick-ass essay, and move on with my life.
And now, I would be given an assignment with a theme, and I would struggle to find something to say. The paper would come back with a decent grade, never below a B, but damn! This was ME, writing. Why all the red marks, why all the frustration when the professor would call me in and ask me for MORE? He wanted more detail, he wanted something else. It upset me to no end, to think I wasn’t a good writer. He told me that I WAS a very good writer, but I was struggling with this type of writing. When we were given an assignment to interview someone else in the class and write about her life, I excelled at that. I wrote a really interesting piece about this other girl whom I had never spoken to much before the interview. The professor wondered why I couldn’t write like THAT about myself.
Because I am not that interesting, I thought to myself. She is much more interesting than me.
And then, he picked as the class example the story that was written about ME, by a fresh-faced boy whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, even though there were maybe only 350 kids in my graduating class. The professor loved his story. I hated it. He was a nice kid, and he listened intently to me, and asked some meaningful questions. But the only thing that I will ever remember about that story is that he referred to me as “feisty.”
God help all the little women the world over with big thoughts who are called “feisty” when what they really are is opinionated.
I remember wanting to punch him in his handsome face. It was unwarranted, that desire. But then again, desires are often unwarranted.
I continued to struggle, and the professor continued to pester me. A few years later, I would choose to be the preceptor for his class, mentoring freshmen kids on how to write memoir when I was only 20. I would laugh at him when I was a junior, and I took another course from him where he told us, when handing out the syllabus, “Here are the requirements for the semester. Of course, there is a sense in which nothing is required, except death.”
I remember a lot of things about this man, with whom I had a comfortable but distant friendship devoid of any creepy connotations. I remember the disturbed look in his eye when he talked about how much he hated Princeton. I remember how much he loved baseball, with some kind of all-consuming love. I remember the delicious vegetarian chili he made for all of us at the beginning of the semester, when we visited his house and saw his extensive gardens. Years later, when I visited with him on trips to the Twin Cities, I would realize his love for cream soda and pastrami.
I remember how he successfully convinced me to try my hand at a genre of poetry called “dramatic monologue,” wherein the author writes in the first person voice from someone else’s point of view.
I remember him egging me on, asking me: “do you remember in T’s piece when she said X? What about in R’s piece when he said Y?” And I would go on and on, remembering every single thing that other students had written, weaving their stories together, finding commonalities, expounding on themes.
I remember him constantly asking me about “the car accident,” which at that time was one of the truly defining moments of my life, to the extent that it came up in casual conversation just as easily as it became the subject of stories, including the story that enabled me to enroll, in spite of myself, in a pretty good liberal arts college with a generous scholarship. He tried to get me to talk about my family, different difficult aspects of my upbringing, the youthful dalliances and loves that had already begun to form my opinions of relationships. He asked me a lot about trains, cars, methods of transportation. Did this guy see into my future and imagine my eventual masters degree in urban planning? Or did he somehow predict that I would write an essay about Chicago (one of the other subjects he always wanted me to elaborate on, and the one that became the theme of the poetry independent study I did with that professor my senior year) that was half about streets and cars and trains, without me even realizing it?
He asked me lots of questions about what I remembered about other students’ work and the books we had read. He looked at me in an exasperated way, as I failed to get the message.
It was like I was paying attention to everyone’s life but my own.
I was doing well in the class, but the writing assignments left me constantly frustrated. At the end of the semester, we received our final writing assignment. The theme was: write about anything you want, as long as it's from your own experience.
I was stumped. I had no idea what to write. I procrastinated, something I rarely did, even in college.
One day I was sitting in my room, studying for a final for another class. I suddenly pictured in my mind this poem that my dad had written and given to me right before I left for school. It was called “Mnemosyne.” She is the goddess of memory. I called my mom and asked her to find the poem where I thought I had left it, and I wrote it down. And then, I wrote a piece that was loosely, maybe only tangentially, based on the idea behind that poem. I don’t remember, ironically, what is was about exactly. I remember how it FELT to write it though. I felt frantic about it, like there wasn’t enough time or that my extremely fast typing wasn’t fast enough. It was just so…EASY. The essay wasn’t particularly thematic, in my mind--it was snippets of things from my childhood, ruminations from my adolescence, scenes woven together from my life. It was an essay about memory, whether I knew it at the time or not.
My essay was chosen as the last essay to discuss in the last class of the semester. We spent the entire class discussing it. I finally got an A. There were no red marks. He loved it. He discussed at length my use of theme, the very specific sense of scene and purpose, the way that I had written about the only thing anyone could ever write about: memory. After class, the professor said this to me:
That is the best thing you have ever written.
And I said, yes, I know that was leagues above anything I ever wrote in this class. To which he replied,
That is definitely true. That piece is not even in the same ballpark as the others. But I mean, literally, I bet THAT IS THE BEST THING YOU HAVE EVER WRITTEN.
How could you know that? I asked.
I just do, he said.
That day, that last class, something else happened. This professor had never once taken attendance or asked us to sign in or said a word to anyone who missed a class. There were maybe 22 of us in the class. We all assumed he didn’t care about things like attendance. Then, he told us that he always gave a prize to the student with the best attendance. How can you know that? We asked. You’ve never written it down.
And he said, well…I always pay attention.
Apparently, I had perfect attendance in the class. I was sure I had missed one, but he told me otherwise. He said that he always gave a lot of thought to what the prize would be, and he picked out a book to fit the person who had earned the award. He unveiled it, and I didn’t know what to think. He told the class that the book was a memoir about a woman who was an unwed teenage mother who by the grit of her teeth made it into Harvard.
Is that how he sees me? I remember thinking.
He said that she was a master at developing scene. He said a bunch of things about the book and its contents. Then, he said this.
Sometimes, the theme is right there on the surface. Sometimes, you really can tell a book by its cover. I’ll tell the truth. Half the reason I picked this book for you, Katy, was for the title.
And he looked at me with this gleam in his eye, the gleam you get from people who listen to the things you say and the stories you tell without judging you, without making fun of you or implying that they are unimportant or small. I could have been offended, but the book is wonderful. I still have that book, that prize that I received for achieving perfect attendance in my Contemporary American Autobiography class my freshman year of college in 1993. The book is by Beverly Donofrio. The title is:
Riding in Cars with Boys.