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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.

annotation: “At the Dam,” by Joan Didion

This is a first: because of one commenter’s interest in my original post on The White Album, I’m just going ahead and publishing the craft annotation I wrote for school on “At the Dam.” You’ll have to let me know if this is interesting or the opposite. Call it an experiment.

10/14/2017
Annotation 14: Finding the Star Map (or central image)

Didion, Joan. “At the Dam.” The White Album. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

“At the Dam” is an essay less than four pages long, which describes Hoover Dam and its ongoing fascination for the narrator. Its very short length and the scale of its subject (literally, in terms of the dam, and figuratively, in terms of its large pull on Didion) make it an interesting study for me, especially because it deals with place. I found that my reactions to the essays of The White Album varied widely: some interested and involved me more than others. This essay inspired my imagination.

Only five paragraphs: and what work do they do? The first paragraph begins, “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Didion goes on to say where she sees the dam appear in that “inner eye”: Los Angeles, New York, while driving; and what it looks like: pristine, gleaming white, vertiginous, shadowed, ominous; its setting: harsh rusts and taupes and mauves. She hears its turbines (a sound as yet undescribed). She wonders how much water is being released (a fascination more generally revealed in an earlier essay in this collection, “Holy Water”). This is all good setting of the scene and the stakes, and includes images.

The second paragraph juxtaposes two ways of thinking about the dam: she compares it to the Mindanao Trench or the stars (baffling enormity), then calls dams “commonplace.” She places the Hoover Dam in history. It “made the Southwest plausible… convey[ed], in the innocent time of its construction, the notion that mankind’s brightest promise lay in American engineering.” This is a short paragraph, but important in that it provides these choices of context. The dam is as vast and inexplicable as the stars; it is familiar; it embodies the American dream, its promise and hubris. This last holds extra significance, because the essence of “America” (here meaning the United States) is one of Didion’s themes in this collection.

Paragraph three develops this idea, “that sense of being a monument to a faith since misplaced.” Images include a memorial plaque, a model city, “a toy triangular grid of green lawns and trim bungalows,” bronze sculptures, “Winged Victories guard[ing] the flagpole,” the flag. My favorite is an empty Pepsi-Cola can: how American, and how expressive of disappointment and disillusionment. Someone has littered at this failed American monument, which however still works, in the practical sense.

The fourth paragraph begins, “But history does not explain it all,” and so Didion will have to keep trying. The practical work of the dam–its capturing and transforming of energy into a form more useful to our human society–does not explain it either. She describes touring the dam with a man from the Bureau of Reclamation, and I pause to look this up: it’s the federal institution that manages water and power in the west. In this paragraph, Didion allows “Reclamation” to stand in for the man himself, a metonymy with religious overtones: “‘Touch it,’ the Reclamation said, and I did.” (A typo for “the Reclamation man”? I like it this way.) In this paragraph she describes the physical features of the dam, its workings, and the area around it, emphasizing its weirdness. Sexual overtones, parts where visitors do not go, alien, complete and beautiful, unpeopled; cranes move as if on their own, machinery roars and hums and vibrates. She finishes with the odd statement that the peculiar moment was “so explicit as to suggest nothing beyond itself.” This one made me stop to think.

The fifth and final paragraph makes a final attempt to grasp something “beyond energy, beyond history.” Didion again juxtaposes everyday Americana with the alien world of the dam. And then she fixes on an image: “the marble star map that traces a sidereal revolution of the equinox and fixes forever, the Reclamation man had told me, for all time and for all people who can read the stars, the date the dam was dedicated. The star map was, he had said, for when we were all gone and the dam was left.” This, she decides, stands in for the dam, “a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.” In five paragraphs, she has stated her fascination (obsession, even?) with the Hoover Dam, explored its significances (history, energy, sheer scale) without finding its true significance to her, and then found it at last.

In reading this essay, my personal background inspired an initial gut reaction: Edward Abbey and my father agree that big dams like this are bad for the natural world. But on closer reading, I think that a) Didion doesn’t necessarily deny that truth and b) it doesn’t matter; she is not making a value judgment, but an observation of the dam’s power over her. That dynamo free of man (more metonymy–I’d prefer humankind) is impressive whether we agree with its rightness or not.

“At the Dam” has inspired me to write an essay modeled on hers about a place that matters to me, although I haven’t figured out yet what that place is. I’m okay with this. I’m working on the essay in my head without knowing what it’s about yet, and sometimes they come out this way: I work on them for six bike rides and then come home and the thing bursts out fully formed like Athena (but a lumpy and misshapen Athena that requires editing, of course). I want to model an essay on the form and structure–and length–of hers, and I hope to find its star map. I’ll be on the lookout for such a place in my own personal history; I’m sure it exists.

Street Shadows by Jerald Walker

Before he wrote The World in Flames, Jerald Walker wrote this memoir-in-essays focused on a later part of his life, when he was navigating a growth from a series of performed roles, most dramatically that of a Chicago inner-city gangster, to college professor and married father of two. This book only touches upon that supremely weird upbringing (black child of blind black parents in a white supremacist doomsday cult, whew), concentrating instead on the period from young adulthood into, say, early middle age. Central to this arc, unsurprisingly, is his evolution of understanding race, which remains incomplete for the narrator at the time in which he’s writing.

The essays included here are both narratives from a life and traditional essays that explore questions in the narrator’s mind. I noted their organization, which generally alternates between the more distant past (a youth filled with mistakes) and the apparent present (or “narrative present”–not without its ongoing mistakes, but with an emphasis on self-awareness and attempts to understand and improve). The next step that seems natural to me, which I have not (yet) taken, would be to examine each essay for its content in terms of narrative vs. traditional assay/thinking on the page. I have a hunch there may be an organizational trick on that level, too.

I found these essays thought-provoking, engaging, and easy-to-read, a trifecta much harder than it looks. There was something a little effortful for me, though, that I’m having trouble articulating. It’s like I can catch just a glimpse of the writer in the background, building his work, on purpose. The essays that most blow me away have a feeling of effortlessness to me, like there’s no writer at all–a narrator, but no writer, no craftsman. Think of E.B. White, or Eula Biss, or Joan Didion. I’ll be hard at work trying to figure out what makes the difference I’m talking about. And for the record, I think it’s a matter of taste: I know readers who prefer the more crafted-feeling essay to the more obscurely drawn one (I’m thinking of Eula Biss’s subtle through-lines).

Feel free to ignore the above confused paragraph, though, and take this recommendation: Street Shadows is a remarkable work on several levels, including its organization, its storytelling style, and the intense and important subject matter Walker is moved to address.


Rating: 8 photographs taped to the door.

The White Album by Joan Didion

The essays in this collection range over diverse subjects, but as a whole are concerned with American culture, and the Sixties (as Didion capitalizes). Frequent topics include travel, especially air travel, and crime. She always pays close attention to place.

Some essays have aged better than others, but all display Didion’s close focus, instinct for detail, and precise syntax. She also has a knack for surprising endings; it would be interesting to study her for her endings alone. I think she’s very good at time and place, that is, setting us in a recognizable time and place with cultural markers. (This may be an unexpected comparison, but she reminds me of Stephen King in this way: think about 11/22/63.) My advisor Kim points out that she uses clothing and architecture to great effect, and I think that’s part of it.

I am especially interested in the title essay and “At the Dam.” “The White Album” begins with the memorable line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” [Somewhere I have a list of such assertions–that narrative is life–and I think the late, great Brian Doyle figures heavily on it. I wish I had a transcript of an interview he gave onstage for a certain radio show in Bellingham.] This segmented essay, in 37 pages and 15 numbered sections, ranges through the United States (and particularly California) of the Sixties, name-dropping if you will: Huey Newton, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Charles Manson, and more, linking these cultural markers with Didion’s own personal experiences. “At the Dam” is a mere five paragraphs long, but offers an incisive study of a place, the Hoover Dam: its history, its engineering, its cultural relevance, its place in a larger physical and metaphysical world. It makes one of those surprising shifts in scope at the end that gives it a profundity, as if the Hoover Dam needed emphasis.

I’ll be reading more Didion. She is an impressive and craft-y essayist, in that her work feels both crafted–put together–and naturally occurring. She is a master of detail and cultural markers. I’ve got a lot to learn from her, and she is an easy, enjoyable read, to boot.


Rating: 7 lifeguards.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Unusually, I was assigned a work of fiction for my study of nonfiction writing.

Set in Fingerbone, a little town in Idaho, this novel is told from the perspective of Ruth, and details her upbringing, along with her younger sister Lucille, by various female relatives. The town of Fingerbone and the surrounding environment, but most especially the lake, play important roles as characters in their own right. Themes overtly include transience and impermanence, and Robinson (who won a Pulitzer for Gilead) employs a subtly shifting narrative voice. A strong sense of place is another obvious feature and focus of this quiet but disquieting novel. Lovely sentence-level language and syntax set atmosphere as well.

I believe I was assigned this book for sense of place, firstly, and for narrative shifting. I was drawn instead to the recurring image and role of water, though, and of that lake in particular. It reminded me of The Chronology of Water and Notes From No Man’s Land for those recurring images that form a theme. I love this kind of imagistic theme, and the way it can provide emotional impact both so subtly and yet so strongly. I’m on the lookout for books that do this kind of work, so keep me in mind.


Rating: 7 mentions of Noah.

The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting ed. by Charles Baxter

Baxter solicited essays from established writers and thinkers about memory in an age of information glut, and was surprised by the extent to which they wrote about forgetting, rather than memory. The result is a remarkable variety of personal stories from life and from writing, and a variety of approaches to memory and its partner, forgetting. Not only models of essay form, these can also function as prompts on the topic.

I was quite taken with The Business of Memory, on the whole, but it was a little uneven from essay to essay, in terms of my personal responses. In the end, I decided this was a strength, or a feature of a collection like this.

I was also initially a little confused about whether to call this a craft book, but decided it’s not; it’s an essay collection about memory, by writers and approaching the problems at the intersection of writing and memory, but it’s not intended to be instructive. These are musings, meditations and personal stories. I made a list of those I liked best–a good long list. And as I review them, I see that I like how they each tell a story, a narrative, of personal experience. They touch on memory very differently.

On the other hand, I had some less-favorites. James McPhersons’s essay struck me as pompous, and I took serious issue with his dismissive statement that “women in this elite are guarded from the haphazard intrusions of Eros by the growing number of company sexual-harassment codes”–like, problem solved! And Alvin Greenberg’s gave me trouble: I really appreciated the efforts his essay made to interrogate memory, but I didn’t enjoy his jokey tone. (Also, I’m a huge hypocrite here, but too many parentheticals!) And Steve Erickson’s rambling story struck me as a little bit frantic and confused–as he confesses to feeling.

These reactions teach me that an essay collection can and perhaps should be varied. I appreciate how far these essays (all responses to the same prompt) range, and it feels right that they touched me so differently. Another reader would have different responses, and be differently well-served. I like that idea. I ended up annotating Greenberg’s essay that gave me such a complicated response, because I appreciated my ambivalence.

My favorite essays were these, in order of appearance.

  • Sylvia Watanabe’s “A Book of Names” describes her upbringing in Hawaii, where her father studied bugs, where she learned the importance of naming things to make meaning. She observes her father, and others, losing their memory, and offers a particular cultural understanding of the importance of both names and memory. When she left for graduate school, her grandmother protested: “Don’t go, there will be strangers there, you’ll forget who you are.” It is a lovely essay filled with metaphor, meaning, and images.
  • Victoria Morrow’s “Don’t Look” is haunted. The narrator is a still-young woman investigating her brother’s death, which she has almost entirely filed away, “forgotten” in a defense against trauma. He had always forbidden her to look at him (literally), and now she has failed to see his death.
  • Karen Brennan’s “Dream, Memory, Story, and the Recovery of Narrative” describes her daughter’s traumatic brain injury and subsequent struggles with memory. She describes several dreams, questioning their relationship to reality, and the form of the essay takes on a certain dream-sequence quality in digressions from a mostly-straightforward narrative telling. I appreciated the personal nature and immediacy of this story, and was especially struck by Brennan’s observations about her instinctive turning to narrative to help her daughter. “At some point I hit upon the idea that what I could do for Rachel that her therapists could not do, perhaps, as feelingly, is offer her help with storymaking, with narrative.” “I felt that had I been lying there in some kind of netherworld, I would want a story that made sense.” This is so evocative to me, to think about our individual responses to trauma and how we think it right to help. Some people would deliver endless casseroles. This writer, naturally, wants to provide story. (I also want to say that I had Karen Brennan mixed up with Karen Branan, which gave me a little cognitive dissonance.)
  • I first read Bernard Cooper‘s “Marketing Memory” early in my formal creative writing education, a few years ago. It was interesting to see how differently I read it now. I very much appreciated the essay then, and do now, but differently. Cooper, after the publication of Truth Serum, was alarmed and surprised at the public’s interest in and knowledge of certain personal details which he’d put into his book. When I first read this, I thought it a little naive and disingenuous for him to be so surprised: he’d written about it. But his argument, that he had perceived himself mining experience for material for art, paying attention to crafted language rather than content, makes more sense to me now that I’ve done a little more of that work myself. Also, I’m still in love with Maps to Anywhere.
  • Patricia Hampl’s “Other People’s Secrets” does interesting and hard work examining the writer’s arguable right to write other people’s secrets–here, her mother’s epilepsy. I am alarmed to read that she has a whole file filled with letters from people cutting her out of their lives for the crime of writing their secrets. Eek.
  • Charles Baxter’s “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age” is a good example of what I respond to in this book as a reader. His essay has four parts, the first about his late brother Tom, the latter three taking more intellectual, theoretical subjects. I marked this essay as among my favorites, but on looking again, it’s really the story of Tom, a loved and loveable and tragic character, that I’m drawn to. Baxter’s words on shame and forgetting in an information-saturated age (and this book was published in 1999! how different now!) are of course wise and valuable; but they don’t sparkle for me like the story of the fallen loved one.

It’s a fine collection, thought-provoking all over the place and in so many ways. I love the diversity here, and would be so curious to hear how other readers responded differently, because I think that’s the beauty of a collection like this: a collection of voices and approaches. I feel certain there’s something here for everyone.


Rating: 9 clean T-shirts for Michael.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

This play takes place over a single day, from 8:30 am to midnight, in five scenes in four acts. It features a family of four, Mary and James Tyrone and their two adult sons Jamie and Edmund. Mary is a recovering and then relapsed morphine addict, and Edmund has tuberculosis. They love one another but seethe with anger, resentments, accusations, blame, and pain. Highly autobiographical, it follows O’Neill’s own family life very closely, with Edmund standing in for the playwright.

As a play, it offers a different format in which to write autobiography, one that features present tense, action, and dialog; subtext and interior drama must be communicated solely in dialog and stage directions.

A Long Day’s Journey Into Night gave me a challenge because I don’t read much drama. It reminded me very much of Tennessee Williams, but I’m not sure if that’s because of all they have in common (alcohol, family drama, subtext, angst in a sort of claustrophobic domestic setting) or just because I’ve read so little drama.

A play is normally, by definition, almost entirely built of dialog; stage directions supplement that dialog but are often minimal. This play is something of an exception. The first thing I noticed was that O’Neill uses unusually many and detailed stage directions, which may indicate his interest in closely following the historical truth of his own family. For example, act one opens with several pages describing the Tyrones’ living room, down to the titles and authors of the books on the bookshelves. (These come into play late in the work.) My first thought was that this was a very challenging play to produce faithfully, including in terms of casting, as the characters’ physical appearances are described in great detail. When I learned the degree of autobiography involved, the level of detail made more sense.

For my own purposes in studying this work, I annotated it for the differences between drama and memoir–in other words, for the possible reasons for O’Neill’s choice of format, the characteristics allowed for by the play. It was worth doing, and I look forward to finding a production to view someday. (Kim recommends Sidney Lumet’s film version, with Katherine Hepburn in the role of Mary, Ralph Richardson as James, Jason Robards as Jamie [he also played the role on stage], and Dean Stockwell as Edmund.) But I confess I look forward to reading more familiar work–prose–again, too.


Rating: 7 drinks.
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