Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mary Karr on Memoir

            At the Tucson Book Festival in 2018 I got to watch Mary Karr and Amy Tan in a comic tag-team match on the subject of memoir. They had a good-natured competition about which of them had the most fucked-up family (their words) and agreed that such a family had proved to be advantageous—more than that, a gold mine—for each of them in the writing of their memoirs. Mary Karr doesn’t exactly say in The Art of Memoir (2015) that you have to have a fucked-up family in order to write memoir, but it’s an almost audible subtext.
            She begins by warning us that memory can fail, and tells about starting the semester in her memoir class at Syracuse by staging an event—a conflict with another teacher about the use of the room—and then asking her students to write an account of it. The misremembered details are intended to be a lesson about how memory can deceive us about events that happened ten minutes ago, let alone in a distant childhood. Her answer: do the best you can and send your manuscript to folks you’ve written about. She writes that all the memoirists she respects do this. She herself is a stickler for trying to tell the truth about the past as nearly as it can be recovered.
            She suggests you test yourself to see if you should even try to write a memoir. Close your eyes, relax, try to clear your mind, and then revisit “the memory you’re scared to set down.” Try to recreate all of its sense stimuli. Let the memory play out. Then open your eyes. How do you feel? If you are an emotional wreck, she says you might not be ready. If you’re too calm, or couldn’t really recreate much, you might not be ready, either.
            Voice has to be the writer herself speaking “not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.” She inserts a chapter on the very distinctive voice of Nabokov, in Speak, Memory!--he breaks most rules, gives no dialogue, has few scenes, and is not someone with whom the reader identifies, but he invests objects with great significance, brings us back to a repetition or echo of where we started (Karr calls it twinning), and excels at what she calls carnality. She means what appeals to the five senses, and she considers it one of memoir’s desiderata. It should evoke place and name names—be particular.
            She returns to the topic of truth in discussing some frauds—Wilkomirski and Frey. She does not believe that truth is relative. Karr likes particular words and phrases—“out the wazoo…scudge [meaning fool or scam]…duller than a rubber knife”…to twig [meaning to catch on]"—and she repeats them.
            Memoir for her means a life story that’s ordered around a psychic struggle—to be whole, to remember the past as in Nabokov’s case, to reconcile two worlds as in Maxine Hong Kingston’s and Amy Tan’s, to find an identity as in Harry Crews’s. She uses the elephant shooting scene in Orwell to illustrate the struggle he is having with colonialism and his role in it. She tells how she checked her own memory and gauged the responses of her family by consulting them before she published her own first memoir. One of her points about describing people and their bad habits is “give information in the form you received it”; instead of labelling people, describe exactly how you discovered she was an alcoholic and he a thief.
            She describes her long struggle to find her own voice, the many false starts in form (poetry) and models (Eliot, Stevens), and the feeling that she’s found it nine months into the first chapter of her first book. This passage seems to me to capture her voice.
As a kid, when I saw my mother’s mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment.
There is no profanity, there, but then she uses profanity less than it seems. This is most of her advice: the truth, the voice, the inner conflict, the importance of revision, and the Karrnality.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sorry, But I Like Air Travel

It’s common for travelers to complain about flying, while writers and comedians make rueful comedy about it. George Carlin most notably dissected airline P. A. announcements, from the idiocy of “pre-boarding” to the jaw-droppingly naïve instruction to “breathe normally” when an emergency oxygen mask drops ominously in front of your face.
            I like to travel by air. I fly my own airplane for fun, but I travel by commercial airliner. I won’t try to convince you that all aspects of it are pleasant; you know better. But I have convinced myself that any unpleasantness is much magnified—or greatly improved—by attitude. Take, for example, the matter of luggage. A car encourages you to fill its trunk. Trains and buses suggest by their size that they have room for anything you can bring. Only air travel demands that you ask yourself what is necessary for you to pack. I realized long ago that the pilots’ and flight attendants’ tote on top of a small rolling case made all kind of sense and was probably a restriction arrived at through compromise: what the crews absolutely needed for stays that could be unpredictably long versus the airlines’ necessity to provide space for the paying rather than the paid souls on board. I may be odd in enjoying the challenge of choice or rejection of that stylin’ sweater, and I positively enjoy the game of reducing weight and bulk in my shaving and medication kit.
            When a jet leaves the ground, the pilot raises the nose to a steep attitude for the climb out. To a person like myself trained to fly in small non-jet planes, it’s an impossible angle that I know will result in a stall, after which the plane will drop immediately several hundred feet; since we are so near the ground, we will crash. It doesn’t happen, of course, because the thrust of these jet airplanes allows them to practically stand on their tails, but for me, it’s one of several moments in commercial flying when I am forced to think about the imminence of death. Another such moment is the landing, which in a jet takes place at a speed entirely too close to two hundred miles an hour. Again, landing my own small plane is different: it is an exhilarating feeling of being the only one responsible for getting this puppy safely onto the ground, but it takes place at speeds that quickly slow from less than a hundred miles an hour to less than fifty.
            I should make clear that I don’t think occasionally imagining that one’s death is close a bad thing. We don’t do it often enough, I believe. Those who don’t fly or those fliers who are utterly indifferent to the experience never feel those moments of near-terror that others of us do: the volaphobes—I think I just made up a word—or those of us who don’t fear flying, but who carefully observe the stages of flight that are the most dangerous moments. Most automobile drivers, I suspect, have had a near-crash experience when they do momentarily feel the brush of the dark angel’s wing. Flying is exhilarating for me partly because of such moments in the air, brief as they may be.
But most of the exhilaration of flying commercial is in the sheer unlikelihood of it all. That feeling when the wheels leave the ground and their unpleasant vibration gives way to smoothness and freedom, for example, is always increased for me when I’m looking from the back of a 747 across eight rows of seats and forward most of a football field’s length to the front, thinking, “this is a building that’s launching itself into air!” And even at altitude, flying comfortably along, with a drink on the tray in front of me not even vibrating a bit, I often think how truly wild and strange it is to be going five hundred miles an hour six miles up in the sky without even having my hair ruffled.
No excitement attends waiting in airports, going through lines for security checks, or driving to and from airports, and any one of these chores might end up taking as long as my flight. But these tedious matters enable me to experience the flight itself, a method of travel still astonishing and as different from ordinary modes of getting across land and sea as the soaring of an eagle is from the crawling of an ant. And at the end I am deposited in a different time zone, on another continent, or even half the world away.