Brevity
Craft Essays

Brevity Home | Craft Index     |

 

Ignorance, Lies, Imagination and Subversion in the Writing of Memoir and the Personal Essay

by Lee Martin

I’ve long believed that much of the power of memoir and the personal essay comes from the fact that the writer allows the reader to stand alongside him or her, participating in events that have already happened and sharing space with the author’s sensibility. To make that possible, I tell my students, it can be a good idea for the writer to admit early on exactly what he or she doesn’t know – what’s troubling, confusing, mysterious. That sort of statement provides an invitation to the reader to embark upon a journey. Perhaps it’s a journey back through the writer’s memories. Perhaps it’s a journey through that writer’s thinking and responding. Perhaps it’s a journey through the way the writer arranges details, images, questions, speculations, contradictions, stories, information, musings, meditations, and the myriad other pieces of “stuff,” the fabric of the lived life, that the writer puts onto the page.

Consider, for example, what happens to you as a reader when you encounter this passage from Andre Dubus’s memoir, Broken Vessels:

 

I remember the headlights, but I do not remember the car hitting Luis Santiago and me, and I do not remember the sounds our bodies made. Luis died, either in the ambulance, or later that night in the hospital. He was twenty-three years old. I do not remember leaving the ground my two legs stood on for the last instant in my life, then moving through the air, over the car’s hood and windshield and roof, and falling on its trunk. I remember lying on my back on that trunk and asking someone: What happened?

The reader becomes a fellow traveler, a co-investigator into the details of the accident. He or she enters into cahoots with Dubus, immediately offered the privileged position of eavesdropper on not only the circumstances of the accident but, of more importance, the way that accident and the loss of Dubus’s left leg below the middle of his knee came to settle in the life he lived from that point on. Because Dubus admits all that he doesn’t remember in the opening paragraph, the ground upon which writer and reader stand levels out, and we’re not being told a story; we’re living it.

So one thing not knowing can do is establish intimacy between writer and reader. It can also invite the imagination to blend with fact for the purpose of making the factual something dramatized and deeply felt. In my “nonfiction” book, Turning Bones (I use the quotes because this book about family members I never knew contains a good deal of fiction), I allowed the facts I discovered through twelve years of research to tickle my imagination, and with their invitation, I found myself going through doorways into worlds and stories created by a happy union between what I knew and what I didn’t.

For example, it would be one thing for me to tell you that my grandfather’s first wife died from tuberculosis, and then he married the girl, my grandmother, who cared for that first wife while she was dying. Those are the facts. It’s quite another thing, though, to imagine, as I say in the opening of the title piece from my book, “my grandmother on the last day of her girlhood, the day my grandfather comes to say his wife, Ella, is dying from tuberculosis.” I remember the strips of rags my grandmother wound into balls and then used to weave multicolored rugs. From that fact, it’s an easy step to imagining her as a young girl, sitting on a ladder-back chair in front of her family’s farmhouse as she watches my grandfather come through the young corn field. It’s easy to see her doing needlepoint on the face of the broadcloth she’ll use to make a dainty drawstring purse, a reticule.

This is something I don’t know to be true. I have no idea how she came to agree to care for Ella. In the scene I gave myself liberty to imagine, though, when my grandfather says Ella is bad sick with consumption, my grandmother doesn’t hesitate. She says, “I’ll come see to her.” She bites off her thread with her teeth, and with that imagined action, she separates herself from her girlhood, a rending that I hope readers feel more powerfully than they would have if they only had the report of the facts. The facts did their job. What I knew invited all the rest, and the dramatization of my imagination, I hope, allowed the experience of fact to come to readers as if it were happening for the first time there on the page, making the lived life of my characters more immediate and enduring.

I first came to nonfiction after years of writing fiction. One of the things that I admire about the former is the way it makes use of the techniques common to the latter – narrative, characterization, dialogue, action, setting, etc. I like the way a personal narrative, based in fact, can make me feel as intensely as I do when I read a good short story or novel. Still, the genre of nonfiction, to state the obvious, is rooted in the territory of the factual. I’ve already suggested, though, that there are times when not knowing and imagining can help bring out the emotional resonance abiding in that territory. To get even more subversive, let me suggest that lying, as well as the stubborn refusal to latch on to the retrievable fact, can do this same kind of work.

In my essay, “Colander” (citation below), I say that as a boy I had the fear that someday while I was at school, my mother and father would pack up and leave because my father’s farming was a cover for the fact that he was a CIA operative often dispatched in the middle of the night to exotic locales kept secret from me. Right away, I admit that I’ve told a lie, a transparent one at that. The truth is my father was a farmer who lost both of his hands in a corn picker when I was barely a year old. He became an angry man, and he often levied his anger against me. When I was a boy, growing up in that angry house with a father who wore prosthetic hands, he felt foreign and dangerous to me. The lie I tell in this essay allows me to reveal those feelings in a way I might not have been able to had I first stated them directly.

In another essay, “All Those Fathers That Night,” I subvert the basic tenet of creative nonfiction, the one that tells us that the writer can always find the facts he or she needs. This essay comes from my obsession with a story from my hometown when I was a boy, a story that didn’t involve me in its facts. An alcoholic man, the father of six children, including a set of triplets, came by the barbershop one summer evening, and when the barber told him that a state trooper had been in earlier asking about him, the man went into the alley between the post office and barbershop, broke the Pepsi bottle from which he’d been drinking, and used the jagged end to cut his throat. This suicide, which I had heard about, became a story so rich in mystery I couldn’t let it go. Eventually, I wrote this essay to try to explore the questions of why the man did what he did and also what it all had to do with me.

My factual source for the essay was a childhood friend whose father was in the barbershop at the time of the suicide, was one of the men, as a matter of fact, who found the man in the alley. My friend, via his mother – his father is no longer living – was able to report many of the details to me, details I used to imagine the event. The one thing I didn’t know was the drunk man’s motivation. I admit that, if I chose, I could have gotten in touch with the barber and asked him questions. I could have gotten in touch with the triplets and asked them questions. I could have done more research, gathered more facts. I confess that I had that option and then, despite what the creative nonfiction police might think, I turned my back on the time-honored base of the genre. I refused to find the fact that might be waiting for me. I discarded the representational in favor of something that was, to my way of thinking, more textured and expressive. “As long as I don’t know why the drunk man did what he did,” I write, “I can fit the story to my own – the story of an only child, born to a father who may have come to love me, but at first was willing to let me go.”

By overlaying the factual with the imagined and then refusing to do the research that could have privileged the former, I allowed the form to be expressive, not only of the event itself, but how that event cast a light into my own interior as connected to this issue of parenthood in general and fathers in particular. The story of the man, then, became necessary to what I had to explore about my own father and the fact that I’ve never been a father. If I knew the facts of why the man did what he did, it might very well not have fit into my own story, might not have been expressive of that story, would have only been the reportage of facts, expressive of something else in their own right, but probably not the story that mattered to what I needed to say about the self. I needed to know less, not more, to be able to honor the purpose for writing. So I’m guilty of not knowing, of imagining, lying and subverting – all, I hope, respecting the factual while making room for the more expressive.


Lee Martin is the author of the novels Break the Skin, published by Crown in 2011; The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; and Quakertown. He has also published two memoirs, From Our House, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection in 2000, and Turning Bones; as well as a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council.

**Lee Martin's essay "Colander,' cited above, originally appeared in One Word: contemporary writers on the words they love or loathe (Sarabande Books) and will be reprinted in Martin's new memoir, Such a Life, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore