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The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay by Carl H. Klaus

The final craft book I read this semester was one of the better ones. Carl Klaus examines that much-discussed issue for the personal essayist (or writer of creative nonfiction), the “I,” the narrator, the first-person mediator of experience and reflection. He notes that for an essay to be “personal,” there must be a person at its center; or at least a persona. This book has four parts (evocations of consciousness; evocations of personality; personae and culture; personae and personal experience) and two to three chapters per part. He discusses problems such as how “never to be yourself and yet always” (a Virginia Woolf line), or the introduction of malady into personal essays (a recent change). Each essay addresses one or more essayists in particular, so it’s a very hands-on study, with textual examples, unlike those craft books I struggle with, that speak in more general terms.

This is also a work of fine writing, and worthy of annotating in itself, something decidedly not true of all craft books. Each essay takes a subject (singular and chameleon “I”; discontinuity) and Klaus then styles the essay after its subject, so the essay on discontinuity is disjointed, and his essay on Montaigne imitates Montaigne’s language. The subjects themselves are worth studying but the form is at least as interesting. I think the individual essays are most useful when the reader is familiar with an essay’s subject (i.e. I’d read Orwell but not Elia/Lamb and found the former essay more useful); but overall, Klaus gives a very good discussion of voice and persona.

Rating: 8 five-hundred-word essays.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir ed. by William Zinsser

I don’t remember when I got this book; I’ve had it for quite some time. (I also have Zinsser’s How to Write a Memoir waiting for me on the massive and daunting to-be-read shelf.) I finally opened Inventing the Truth to read Annie Dillard’s essay, “To Fashion a Text,” that Kim Kupperman assigned me; but I found I couldn’t put it down. I went back to the beginning and read the whole thing through, and I think it’s an excellent collection.

Zinsser approaches “the age of the memoir” beginning with a series of craft talks in 1986. These talks, transcribed, are joined by later additions to form this collection of nine craft essays, all originally delivered orally (whether to an audience or in interview format with Zinsser) by nine writers including Dillard, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They talk about what they want to talk about, so the subjects vary somewhat but all address how to write memoir from very different angles. Their delivery, perhaps because originally oral, is consistently enjoyable, and the content is very useful, practical, nuts-and-bolts; it also offers insights into the writing of masterpieces like Beloved. Not to be outdone, Zinsser’s introduction is a lovely piece of prose in itself, and presents a nearly perfect review of what the book in turn contains.

I made a bunch of notes, and am interested in particular in reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City. A few details that especially fascinated me: that Toni Morrison considers the work of her fiction to be “trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left.” And then the concept that when the straightened Mississippi River “floods” its old path, it’s not really flooding at all, but remembering: where have I heard this before? Lovely! I wonder if these essays–all of them!–struck me so nicely because they were originally delivered orally. I have always been interested in the idea of oral histories or oral storytelling.

This was a deeply enjoyable book, obviously recommended for anyone struggling with the writing of memoir, but actually it should be appealing to general readers, too, especially those impressed by the work of Dillard, Morrison, et al. Perfectly pleasant reading.

Rating: 8 Rorschachs.

The Essayist’s Dilemma (Occasional Papers on the Essay: Practice and Form, from Welcome Table Press) by Marcia Aldrich, Lucy Ferriss, Kim Dana Kupperman, and E.J. Levy

This paper is available for free download here. (Full disclosure, again: Kim Dana Kupperman, one of four contributors to this pamphlet and founder of the press, is currently my semester advisor.)

I expected a rather dry read, a how-to, a craft book(let), in short. Instead I found a brief, punchy discussion, in four voices, of something that matters to me. It was quick and fun to read. I’m so sorry I doubted.

This is such a brief piece of work that I’m in danger of writing more in review than there is to review, but here goes. Marcia Aldrich’s introduction sets up the dilemma: publishers don’t like essay collections; essay is a dirty word; essayists have trouble getting published as such. (Examples given.) Lucy Ferriss responds with “The Parts and Whole”: the idea of needing to group a collection around an idea, to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, is not such a bad challenge, and one that can yield good results. We should not resist this push. Kim Kupperman, in “An Essayist’s Dilemma,” shares the journey (I just used that word because Kim hates it. Sorry, Kim)… the evolution her book I Just Lately Started Buying Wings experienced on its way to the form in which I read it. As she sums up: “a question, a taking apart and reassembling, a husband’s instinct, a poem’s fever, an editorial directive, and, finally, a return to an original idea.” Finally, E.J. Levy writes “In Defense of Incoherence”: she quite likes a thoroughly disconnected essay collection, thank you, and screw commercial concerns.

It’s all good, useful stuff. I think it’s true, that essay collections are unpopular with publishers, because they are unpopular with the (profitable) general readership. Ferriss’s argument makes perfect sense to me, perhaps because my mind works the same way, or I believe the same thing she seems to: that an overarching and unifying idea (or the dreaded theme) is a good thing. This is very much the concept that Levy argues directly against in her piece. As a reader, I am much more like the profitable general reader than I am like Levy. I prefer unity. In fact, I have long resisted reading essay collections, especially when they are presented as miscellany. I realize how damning an admission this is: I hope to write and even publish essays; but I don’t want to buy or read them. Well, it’s a little less damning than that, because I hope to write and publish a memoir-in-essays, or a decidedly connected collection.

Kim, as I read her, does not take a position on whether connectedness is desirable or no. I loved reading the story of Wings; it was the perfect example to learn from, since I studied this and her later memoir rather closely and have been getting to know the author herself some. (Also, its organization is a little unusual, or complicated, but clearly it has an organization.)

Although I don’t read and think the way Levy does, I enjoyed reading her opinion – especially as she called in Fisher’s Consider the Oyster:

I’m a fan of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, but by the time I’m on the fifth oyster in Consider the Oyster, I’m queasy. It’s nto that such a strategy can’t work, but that it makes me suspect that the essayist was considering something other than the oyster–a check from a publisher maybe, the adorableness of her own conceit.

My first thought was, Levy does not like oysters as much as I do. I’d love the opportunity to discover how many oysters it would take to make me queasy! I haven’t found it yet. Seriously, I see her point; but I guess I also found Fisher’s conceit adorable, enough to be unbothered by it. Maybe it’s just how much I like oysters.

Perhaps the greater point here is that we all, always, still, have different preferences. I agree with the thesis of this pamphlet (as I see it), that a preference for a disconnected miscellany of essays is less universal than an appreciation of connected collections (or books with narrative arcs, like memoirs). And I’m on the side of the majority here. That will make it harder to publish the unconnected. I hope it still happens, because I desire a multitude of options and value the tastes of the minority; but I agree with the majority, taste-wise, and with the problem presented here.

I guess the most optimistic thought I have to offer is: this is why we have Welcome Table Press, Kim Kupperman’s small press that publishes weird little essay things that perhaps no one else wants; and thank goodness for that, and for all the other small presses that publish the minority’s desires. It’s The Long Tail all over again, and I’m in favor of it.

Rating: 9 brief and well-stated arguments.

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

This is a longform essay about reading, inspired by Ulin’s son’s struggles to read and annotate The Great Gatsby (for school, naturally). Over its course, Ulin ranges widely over his own book-reviewing career; his relationship with his son; the reading habits of the author and others (including many other writers); studies of brain science and distraction patterns; politics and current events; the nature of memory (in memoir, in Ulin’s personal observation, and in scientific studies); e-readers; and much more. Though it was assigned to me as a craft book–meaning an instructive book about craft–I found an interesting element in Ulin’s own writing: his use of parenthetical quotations from other writers.

This could be a sort of self-referential exercise, too: a longform essay about why it’s so challenging these days to read such things as longform essays. (This book began as an essay in the Los Angeles Times, which was then expanded into the fuller-length version here, at ~150 pages.) I confess I found my attention wandering at times, which could be commentary on many issues, of which only one is Ulin’s talent on the page: distracted times, indeed. Overall I did enjoy the discussion, including the meanderings into the utility of the e-reader and Obama’s popularity ratings, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Ulin and I are in sync on many conclusions about the state of the world and of reading. “It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.”

Rating: 7 titles.

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My advisor Kim recommended this book to me as a craft book, although it is not quite a how-to, but rather a contemplation on the reading/writing life.

This short study of Emerson on the subject of writing (by an Emerson expert) is a brief, accessible view on the man. Quotable, but more than a collection of quotations. Richardson portrays a complete man, not simply a set of accomplishments. This Emerson is fascinated with writing as process and lifestyle, philosophic, and committed to exposing his own shortcomings.

I found it worthwhile, and an easy way into Emerson, who I haven’t found terribly approachable before now. I noted several quotations. The part especially intrigued me, in the final pages, where Emerson and Goethe are in some conversation about how intimidating it can be to observe the greats who have come before us… I often feel, when I discover a wonderful, new-to-me writer, both inspired by their achievement and discouraged by how high the bar has been set. And then of course the closing idea that to be a writer is to “abdicate a manifold and duplex life”! Whew.

An easy read, by turns encouraging, thought-provoking, and challenging.

Trivia of which I was unaware: Richardson is married to Annie Dillard. When I read this at the close of his ‘Acknowledgements’ (at the end of the book), I thought, ah! there’s the wisdom. (Some of you may recall that I have a complicated relationship with Annie Dillard–not all love–but enormous respect.)

Rating: 7 white whales.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo

A delightful, short, rich book about writing, deserving of (literal) pocketing alongside Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

This book is subtitled “lectures and essays on poetry and writing,” but I found it as intriguing as a creative work in itself as it is a wise craft book. On the surface, it appears aimed at poets, but I think all writers can benefit. Hugo has a refreshingly irreverent attitude and I wish I could have known him–he died the year I was born.

His self-effacing, humorous, but somehow also very serious approach to writing makes perfect sense to me, and his ideas about practice and luck mirror things I’ve been thinking for some time: that all the “bad” work we put in makes room for the good, and that practice allows for luck. (See the title essay, “The Triggering Town.”) There are some lovely essays in this book, as pieces of craft in themselves. How do we count a craft book? I considered annotating either of the last two, “Ci Vediamo” and “How Poets Make a Living” (that is, writing a craft essay for school about one of these essays). The line between craft books and creative works can be broad and fuzzy, can’t it. Recall again Strunk & White, which is such lovely, humorous, personality-rich writing. I’ll be returning to this one for encouragement and warm feelings. And maybe I’ll get around to annotating some, even.

Rating: 9 cartons of cigarettes from Spinazzola.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Another gem from Mary Karr. As a craft book, this one has it all (that is, all the things I like): a friendly, approachable, authentic-feeling voice; lots of references to other books with succinct, clear commentary; a balance between practical advice, appreciation, and commiseration; a humble, self-deprecating approach from a well-respected author. Also, I just really like Mary Karr.* Her on-the-page personality comes through so clearly and feels so much like someone I’d like to know. (Our hometowns, though very different, are less than 100 miles apart. My affinity for place makes me wonder how much this contributes to my feeling of kinship.)

The Art of Memoir is just over 200 pages long, including a 6-page, densely-packed reading list* (always exciting, and intimidating!). It begins with Karr’s “Caveat Emptor,” a disclaimer in which she writes, “no one elected me the boss of memoir.” One of the recurring concepts in this book is Karr’s reluctance to take up the mantle of expert; but she does acknowledge her “fifty-plus years of reading every memoir I could track down and thirty teaching the best one (plus getting paid to bang out three)”. She then takes us through a study of some of her favorite memoirists–Nabokov, Harry Crews, Maxine Hong Kingston, Kathryn Harrison, Michael Herr–and, with apologies (“if I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have way more Nabokov in here”), her own work. She offers chapters with titles like “Why Not to Write a Memoir” and “How to Choose a Detail,” and focuses on carnality (“sensory impressions, not sexual ones”), lies, individual talents, how to deal with loved ones, blind spots and false selves, exaggeration, and so much more. Unsurprisingly, she places early and heavy significance on the subject of voice, and there may be no writer more qualified. It’s one of the things Karr does best, in my opinion.

Perhaps for that reason, I was especially charmed at what she had to say about Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place:

At the time I came across A Childhood, I was an academically uncredentialed former redneck Texan trying to pass myself off as a poet in hyperliterary Cambridge. Crews had lost time trying to hide his own cracker past, and then he’d written about that milieu in a book that would serve as my lodestar. How good it is, I can no longer gauge. But it helped to guide me out from my biggest psychological hidey-holes. Reading Crews, I found the courage to tell the stories I’d been amassing my whole life. I include so much of him here to underscore how mysterious a single influence can be if he shares a novice’s foibles. Were I a tattoo-getting individual, I’d owe him some fleshly real estate.

That kind of enthusiasm is catching, of course, and I was convinced to go straight to Crews; in fact, I had to put this book down to read that one (for reasons of school schedules). In case you missed my review of that book, here it is. And directly after, I turned back to Karr for a reread of The Liars’ Club. (Fresh review coming up on Friday.) I have yet to find my way to her acclaimed memoirs Cherry and Lit, but I think they’ll be on the list.

Like the best craft books, this one makes good reading in itself.* It’s not a manual. Karr’s personality on the page is worth spending time with, and she makes the appreciation of good writing more accessible. She writes for general readers (and warns them, when things are about to get technical, that they might skip the next few pages). There are also passages specifically for writers: a list of “old-school technologies for the stalled novice,” for example, that does not rely on writing exercises. In short: there is much to love here. Not least, Mary Karr herself.

Rating: 8 inner enemies.

*These are all things I could have written about Stephen King’s On Writing as well, and they would have been equally true. It’s no coincidence that I enjoyed both of these books. If you like one, do go find the other.

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