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Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family ed. by Joy Castro

Family Trouble is a delightful collection about the challenges of writing nonfiction about family. I loved the wide range here: of experiences related by these established (published) writers; of the advice they have to offer; and in the writers, themselves, who are of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, sexualities, gender expressions, and life experiences. Editor Castro contributes a pure-gold introduction, which incorporates quotations and references to all her contributors but also manages to offer her own perspective. I was on page 7–yes, in the introduction–when I found my first epiphany.

Essays are sorted into sections by outlook or strategy: “Drawing Lines,” “The Right to Speak,” “Filling the Silence,” “Conversations of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with Karen Salyer McElmurry). Others I knew by reputation: Susan Olding, Susan Ito, Sandra Scofield, Lorraine M. L√≥pez, and more. I did have favorites, sure, but I emphasize, I most appreciated the interplay, the sum of parts: these diverse voices and perspectives playing off each other. The anecdotes from experiences are valuable (and often entertaining or humorous, although there is much pain here, too). The writing is lovely. It’s a hell of a collection.

Here are a few of my most treasured lessons.

“Good writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on the page, and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” Writing The Truth Book, I truly was on a genuine voyage of discovery, and these two driving questions* helped shape the memoir, guiding my choices about what to disclose and what to omit. If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of those questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.

From Castro’s introduction; and she mentions the *two driving questions earlier in the paragraph, but I submit that they don’t even matter here, for the purpose of the lesson she offers. I’ll try and recapture it: the memoirist must be driven to tell a story in pursuit of discovery or of answering a question or questions. The issue of whether to include certain material (which, I’ve said elsewhere, is a central issue in crafting memoir) then becomes simply an issue of whether it pursues the main question(s), the desired discovery. …This assumes that we know why we’re writing, and I don’t, always. Sometimes I just want to write a thing, without knowing what the burning issue is. So this becomes a multipart problem: figuring out why a story needs writing (what’s the burning question?), and then mindfully allowing that question to sort what needs inclusion and what does not.

This seems, now that I’ve thought it out, plenty obvious. But I had to get there, and Castro helped.

I also really appreciated the concept that the idea of family stories exists on a spectrum, with the immediately, intimately personal (individual) on one end, and a global human community on the other. From Aaron Raz Link:

A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story. Before I became a writer, I was a historian working in public museums. As a result, I see that family assembles our individual stories together to become the fabric we call culture and history. This process gives each of us some sense of belonging to a larger world.

Richard Hoffman’s first memoir helped put the man who raped him in childhood away in prison, and therefore offers a particularly stark example of personal or family stories having larger ramifications. He contributes to the same idea:

The trouble with the view put forth in dozens of books about family “dysfunction,” some of them interesting and helpful, is that it tries to understand the family without its community, without its culture and class, without its history and the relation of that history to–well, History.

Somehow, I feel like this relates back to some comments I made near the end of this post, about interdisciplinarity. Seeing the connections feels like some of the most important learning we can do, ever.

I loved that some essays took different forms, like Susan Olding’s contribution, “Mama’s Voices,” with its stop/play/fast-forward organization, involving tape recordings. I appreciated the far-reaching context and concerns of Faith Adiele’s “Writing the Black Family Home.” And I enjoyed and marveled at Ariel Gore’s “The Part I Can’t Tell You,” in which she does tell us. Or does she?

Much to be admired, and probably of interest to a fan of memoir as well as a hopeful writer of same.


Rating: 8 mournful duets about two people who never should have broken up.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain

Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun is a compelling, heart-breaking piece of personal narrative, and it is told beautifully, with restraint and with artistry and structure. The first observation is one any reader might make; the second is the more subtle observation of a reader looking for writing tricks. This is a book that works beautifully on both levels.

The narrator was raised by a complicated woman named Debbie. She was a soldier, a strong woman who made impulsive decisions and charged ahead, took care of herself and her two sons through all kinds of hardship; she had poor judgment in choosing romantic partners, was married five times with many relationships in between, for which she was harshly judged in turn. When Justin was 20, she was murdered by her most recent husband, Ray, a former cop with the requisite mustache and mirrored sunglasses. Until then, Justin had thought Ray the most harmless one of the bunch.

This memoir is the story of Justin’s mother’s death: his shock and grief, his anger, the violent end of Debbie and, later, of Ray. It ranges between these individual instances of gun violence and others, personal and societal, as Justin visits with Debbie’s former partners, goes shopping at a gun show, and cycles back over and over again to Tombstone. Oh, did I leave that part out? Justin and his brother Josh were raised in Tombstone, Arizona, a town whose very existence depends on the legends of Wild West shoot-outs.

I appreciate St. Germain’s title, because it reinvents an old and meaningless saying in a fresh new way: making the point that he is indeed a son of a gun, of a gun culture that engineered his mother’s demise. I also appreciate the way he handled his own character, the narrator, in a spare way that acknowledges (for example) the problematic way in which the 20-year-old reacts to his mother’s murder. He does not always behave well, but who would?

It’s a hell of a sad story, one that recalls my recent read Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood (review to come), and A Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s a hell of a story, in the first place, and at the same time, tragically, nothing out of the ordinary: a 2017 CDC report concluded that nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former intimate partner. St. Germain does deal with this larger context, although his primary concern (understandably) remains personal.

A hell of a story, but also artfully told. I often think that creative writing, the kind I’m studying, has two parts: an interesting story, and the artful telling of it. A book can become successful, can please or entertain and sell, with either one or the other of those elements, but the best books have both a good story and a good telling. One of the key features of this book, I think, is the narrative restraint. Anytime a writer handles a story this close to home and this fraught–emotional, violent, graphic–it’s difficult to keep a calm perspective, and yet not be cold and distant. St. Germain walks that line. Another strength is the weaving in of the external, if you will, theme material: the history of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (which St. Germain informs us actually took place “in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt”). This is a classic gift to the writer from the universe: that he was brought up in Tombstone, that Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and the O.K. offer such a backdrop for his story and his reflections on it. This braided-in information is almost too perfect for his story; but this is why we say fact is stranger than fiction. It allows a very neat context for the narrator to think about not only his personal tragedy, but the larger cultural implications.

I was riveted as I read this book, all the way through in a day, because this story has momentum, suspense and crafted pacing. I was heartbroken for the characters, and struck by St. Germain’s gestures at the larger world. It’s a very fine book.


Rating: 8 arcane alphanumerics.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Strong words, but I’m going to say it: I think this is the most enjoyable craft book I have read. Strunk & White and Stephen King are very good but McPhee wins it.

Eight essays about writing, previously published in The New Yorker and only one of them previously collected (“but to a far greater extent [it] belongs here”). McPhee is funny, self-deprecating, practical, and wise. He tells stories! I love the anecdotes, such as the one that begins “Frame of Reference,” and makes the point that a reference must always be chosen with an audience in mind. (Greta Garbo will not be meaningful to kids born after 2000; Britney Spears will not be meaningful to my grandmother.) He gives good, down-to-earth writing advice, unsurprising, as this skill has been honed by decades of teaching experience. McPhee’s students populate these essays, too, some of them bumbling and some of them accomplished, and all of them treated gently. He relates tales of interviews that went easily (Woody Allen) and less easily (Jackie Gleason). The tone, McPhee’s writing voice, is exceptionable. I find him just quintessentially likeable. He is funny, humble, and instantly recognizable.

“Progression” is about linkages, and fits nicely with the following essay, “Structure,” on that topic. “Editors & Publisher” is something of a series of profiles of those McPhee has worked with, with some advice and wisdom about how the work works. “Elicitation” is about interviews (those great stories), both anecdote and how-to. “Frame of Reference,” with all its details from life and history and McPhee’s writing and reading, was one of the most enjoyable essays for me. “Checkpoints” is about fact-checkers, again with such an engaging proportion of fascinating story and practicality. “Draft No. 4” is about the writing process and the writing life: how drafting works, and how to hopefully retain sanity. “Omission” is about brevity, and cutting, and allows McPhee to finish both this essay and the book with a humorous line spoken by General Eisenhower: this is a writer who knows how to pick a quotation and let it stand.

McPhee gave me some things to ponder: his astonishing method of finding a structure first and them a subject to fit it; his method of note-taking and outlining; his drafting. And I will cherish forever one-liners like, “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line” (not about homicide at all, but about “greening,” a topic after my own heart). I will keep this book handy for both its solid advice and its entertainment value. I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know; and I can’t wait to read more McPhee.


Rating: 9 mustaches.

Object Lessons by Eavan Boland

I recall studying a poem in high school by Eavan Boland titled “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me.” As I approached this semester’s critical essay, one of the talented faculty in my program, Diane Gilliam, recommended this work of prose, for my topic on objects. Diane’s words, to the best of my memory, were, “Every woman artist needs to read this book.” I’m so glad I did; especially when I got to page 231, where “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me” makes an appearance, as the only poem of her own that Boland chooses to feature. Synchronicity.

Object Lessons is an examination of the conflict Boland has experienced between her self as poet and her self as woman, with the overlay of Irishness on it all. She leaves Ireland at age five, to a London that largely rejects her kind, to return to her home country in her teens and to study poetry at Trinity in Dublin, a charged literary atmosphere. It takes some time for this young person, still discovering herself as a woman, a sexual creature, and a person of a nation, not to mention as a poet, to see the holes in the legacy she has inherited: there is no place for her in this history. “It was not exactly or even chiefly that the recurrences of my world–a child’s face, the dial of a washing machine–were absent from the tradition [of the poet’s life], although they were. It was not even so much that I was a woman. It was that being a woman, I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” Names are important. “Every art is inscribed with them. Every life depends on them.” Further, about the poet-versus-woman tension: “For anyone who is drawn into either of these lives, the pressure is there to betray the other: to disown or simplify, to resolve an inherent tension by making a false design from the ethical capabilities of one life or the visionary possibilities of the other.”

Over the course of this book, she lays out the problems she found and her own best efforts at solving them, a job she acknowledges is unfinished. But she hopes that a book like this helps future women poets, by giving them a starting point, something else to point to. Heartbreakingly, by contrast, she relates that the first woman poet she knew of as a young woman was Sylvia Plath, and that name she knew first as a suicide, not a poet at all.

I was also very interested in the way this memoir started: with the missing, imagined, scantily sketched biography of her grandmother. The narrator explores the history, the meager records of the woman; she imagines; and she travels to view a grave and a hospital. It’s a lovely study, the story of someone absent, and a consideration of what we get from an ancestor we can’t really know.

Boland has plenty of good thoughts about place, sense of place, and nation as aspect of our selves and our writing selves. She makes much of the Irish poetic tradition to conflate the feminine and the national. Her musings can get pretty cerebral and abstract, so this memoir took some slow, thoughtful reading; but I think it’s worth the time. Also, I am very interested in Boland’s assertion that she structured the book like a poem: “in turnings and returnings.” I have more thinking to do.


Rating: 7 high heels tipped with steel.

No Heroes by Chris Offutt

No matter how you leave the hills–the army, prison, marriage, a job–when you move back after twenty years, the whole county is carefully watching. They want to see the changes that the outside world put on you. They are curious to know if you’re lost your laughter. They are worried that perhaps you’ve gotten above your raisings.

This is beginning of No Heroes. Only the prologue retains this second-person perspective, which I think would have gotten difficult for the length of the book, but it’s a perfect intro: it brings immediacy, in that you are the one facing these challenges; and it offers a dreamy, literary take on Chris Offutt’s rough-edged subject and setting. This prologue takes the form of an instruction manual (“to do this, do this”): how to return home, if home is this specific place. It concludes:

You are no longer from somewhere. Here is where you are. This is home. This dirt is yours.

It’s a perfect beginning.

This book is a close cousin to Jeremy Jones’s Bearwallow, which comes as no surprise because Jeremy recommended it to me.

It’s a fine book. In blurbs on the back, Offutt’s style is compared to that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver: strong words, but I can see the comparison. Offutt tends toward short, declarative sentences, except when he doesn’t (like Hemingway, a man perfectly comfortable with long, convoluted sentences and full-blooming metaphor when he feels like it, despite a reputation to the contrary). That is, the prose is mostly simply put together, undemonstrative, but he also knows how to turn a surprising or beautiful phrase at the moment we least expect it; the rarity of such lines adds to their impact.

Offutt’s story, like Jones’s, is of going away and coming back. Both men are from Appalachia. Offutt is from the hills of northeast Kentucky, where he went to elementary school, high school and college within ten miles, and only realized later how unusual this was. As a troubled twenty-year-old, he’d left the hills. He returns as a forty-year-old, having collected an education, written books, married and had two boys, lived and experienced lots of places. He’s back to teach at his alma mater, a humble school where he had worked maintenance while a student, a paradoxical foot-in-two-worlds experience that his cohorts on both ends–work and school–had struggled to accept. “It was more of a high school with ashtrays than a genuine college,” Offutt writes, but that criticism sounds less nuanced in isolation than it does on the page, in the midst of his obviously tortured love for this place.

In the course of No Heroes, he navigates his return to this place, whose dirt and leaves and birds he passionately loves. His parents still live here, but his love for them is less easy. His wife, Rita, and their two sons have some trouble adjusting to a place that is not theirs. Offutt came home hoping to be a hero to students like the one he was: talented but without role models, ready to slip into crime more easily than into art. The title foreshadows the end of that plot line, of course.

But there is another plot line! And it’s a doozy, complicating the story of the homesick Appalachian who has made good and therefore alienated himself. Offutt’s in-laws are finally ready to let him tell their stories. Both are Polish Jews and survivors of a string of Hitler’s concentration camps. You think you’re homesick? The narratives of Arthur and Irene humble us all. The flashback parts are different from the whole of the book: Arthur and Irene’s chapters are told in their own voices (Offutt recorded their interviews), and his own chapters told in his own voice; occasional scenes give dialog representing the interviews themselves. While a bit jarring at times (watch those chapter titles and they will guide you; I have trouble focusing on titles, for no good reason), even this effect–the jarring in and out of a painful past–suits the subject matter. It is Arthur’s admonishment about telling the complicated story, that even victims have flaws, that titles the book: “Remember, Sonny, no heroes.”

I really enjoyed this book. It’s very rooted in a beloved place, and contains two stories equally well-told. For parents, for Appalachians, for anyone facing the tension of succeeding out of the bounds of their upbringing, for the homesick, this is an engaging memoir.


Rating: 8 “crimson maple leaves with green veins that pulsed in mourning for the branch they’d left.”

Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk

What an extraordinary, slim little book. Many thanks to my classmate Andrew, who I think was the one to recommend it for my critical essay topic about objects.

Martha Ronk is a poet, so insert my usual hesitation about making intelligent commentary on a genre I’m not terribly comfortable with. This book is organized in three parts: Objects, People, and Transferred Stories (in the table of contents) or Transferred Fictions (within the text). That last discrepancy, I assume, is an editing error; but I kind of enjoy having the two options to choose from. On the other hand, my copy transposes a number of pages in the middle of the book: clearly an error, and a very annoying one, and I keep getting books with missing pages or transposed pages or whole sections replaced by duplicate sections; what gives? Anyway–I did have all the pages, and thank goodness, because they are good pages.

The section “Objects” is further subdivided into “Various Objects,” “The Book,” “Photograms,” and “Collecting,” and the first subsection is all prose poems, a breed of poetry I feel more at home with: just one or two paragraphs of lyric observations, and right up my alley, topically. I loved “A Glass Bowl” and “A Lost Thing” especially. As the book continues, prose poems give way to short essays, but there remains a dreamy note of not-quite-reality, and an attention to lyricism, rhythm, and sound. These words deserve to be read aloud.

Can I get away with sharing one of these prose poems here? If I choose a very short one? This is “The Cup,” the very first item of the book.

The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.

Go ahead, read it aloud.

Ronk quotes heavily from other writers, most especially Henry James (blurbs call James the “patron saint” or the “major genie” of this work). She studies various objects that move her, and a number of these are works of art–sculptures, paintings–making this partly a work of ekphrasis, recalling Doty (again and again). She has a piece called “An Obsession with Objects”–yes, I see you seeing me. She slips in Lolita and Posada (I look up at the Posada print on my wall), as well as her mother’s death and her own study of kung fu and fear of mortality; but it is the objects, always, at the center. The title concept is the transfer of qualities between objects, people, and places, an evocative thing to consider, especially for a person with my obsessions. She has a special care for bowls, and for blank space, for the air contained in bowls and other voids. I love it.

I found lots to love, to quote, and to save for future work, both critical and creative. At just seventy-nine pages, this book came as a small but powerful gift to me, not unlike (again) Still Life With Oysters and Lemon (also by a poet–hm). If you share my interest in “stuff,” by all means, make this a point.


Rating: 9 frames.
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