Tag Archives: MFA

Memoir and Missed Connections


Perhaps Pasha the cat noticed Peter Trachtenberg’s “Another Insane Devotion”


We’ve all experienced it, that feeling of “what if” or “if only.” I just never expected it would apply to my reading life. I’ll admit that I never gave memoir a chance, not really, until I tried to write one.

I’m five months away from completing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, something I never imagined. Though I once thought I would finish the book I’m writing about my relationship with my father by this June (such a special snowflake!*), I now know that’s not true. It’s going to take time to make it sing. But in the course of being absolutely, completely focused on my goal — a lifelong habit, and maybe a bad one — I accidentally fell in love, thanks to amazing reading matchmakers including authors Dinah Lenney, Joan Wickersham and Peter Trachtenberg (as well as my classmates).

Read 100 books, write one, indeed.

The best memoirs invite the reader into the writer’s world through fine observations of character and place and situation. They do so economically, by selecting just-right details that stick in the reader’s imagination. They elevate the mundane, pull the extreme within reach. They avoid sappiness. Sometimes, not always, the reader experiences that smack-to-the-head moment of recognition. Memoirs are stories.

Can’t the same be said of novels? Well, yes, but memoirs are written by real people, a veracity that gives them added dimension. I’m not suggesting that the memoirist isn’t a character; no, no, the narrator is a construction. The best tour guides show us enough of their doubt and wonder, the workings of their minds, for us to trust them. As Adam Gopnik put it last week in The New Yorker, “We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be.” Writing about two re-released memoirs by Henry James, he continued: “…(H)is purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking. The simple end of offering a recreation of one life’s moments remains, if guarded by enough ironic intelligence, perfectly attainable.”

I’ve got some distance to go to achieve “ironic intelligence,” not to mention illumination and sense-making of my story.

But here’s a quote that makes me feel slightly more heartened, from Patricia Hampl, one of my heroes: “Because everyone has a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told. For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something — make something — with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” (from “Memory and Imagination,” an essay in, I Could Tell You Stories)

I know I’m a far better writer now than when I began my MFA. I know I have some distance to go. I don’t know if I’ll get “there,” wherever the hell “there” is. But this is as certain as the coffee table under my feet: I’ll keep reading, and this time I won’t ignore nonfiction, especially memoir.

For great reviews of nonfiction books, check out the Los Angeles Review of Books nonfiction section (LARB, by the way, is a nonprofit). As an example, I am salivating to read The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, written up here. And for one of the best books, ever, about reading and writing, I recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It will change the way you read and maybe your life.

Gulp. Here’s a list of memoirs that have blown the top of my head off since entering my MFA program:

Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad

Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club

Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father

Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face

Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter

Dinah Lenney’s The Object Parade

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk

Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping

Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion (plus: cats!)

Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index


*Credit here to Charles Bock who read from his soon-to-be-released novel, Alice & Oliver and commented on the mistaken belief of many MFA’ers that they will finish their book by the time they graduate.







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Not Dead Yet

Father of the bride

Father of the bride

In a play presented by Davis-based Barnyard Theater two years ago, Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, continually asks the troubled protagonist, “Are you not dead yet?”

I’m at a stage in life where I’m supposed to be settled. My marriage is stable, I’m successful professionally, my kids are mostly launched, and I helped both parents at the end of their lives. The time ahead of me is likely shorter than the time behind me. Time to sit back and relax, right?

If Dad’s longevity is any indication, I could have forty or more years left. And I am not willing to spend it as excess population.

Yesterday I accepted an offer into admission at Bennington’s Master’s in Fine Arts program, where I will spend the next two years working hard to become a better writer. I hope to do justice to the story I have to tell about my relationship with my father, from the tense days of my childhood and adolescence through the reflective last years of our life together.

Once upon a time, I waited to pursue and complete a Master’s Degree in Business Administration until I knew how it would help me in achieving my professional goals. Going back to school this time is different. As a degree, an MFA is probably useless for somebody like me. I don’t need it to do anything.

But I’m impatient. I’m looking for jumper cables, a cattle prod, a kick in the butt. (I’m sure the inept use of metaphor will be kicked right out of me.) I recently read a comment by a woman who said of her MFA that it was a useless degree but it taught her how to really read.

I could come out of this a better writer. I could come out of it a better reader. Maybe I’ll meet people who will make a difference in my life, or I will make a difference in theirs. Perhaps the program will serve as an incubator for ideas about how to use writing to help people who walk the caregiver’s road.

The words to describe the journey I will begin on June 19 are conditional: could, maybe, perhaps. I don’t really know what will happen. But I’m doing this anyway.

Yesterday, the day that I made a decision about which graduate program to enroll in, I came across “Learning to Walk,” by David Whyte. Here’s part of it:

So learning to walk
in morning light
like this again,
we’ll take that first step
toward mortality,
giving our selves away
today by walking
out of the garden,
through the woods,
along the river,
toward the mountain,
its simple,
that’s what we’ll do,
practicing as we go,
we’ll be glimpsed, 
traveling westward, 
no longer familiar,
a following wave,
greeted, as we were at our birth,
as probable 
and slightly dangerous strangers,
some wild risk 
about to break again
on the world.

Once upon a time, my father gave me away. Just before I removed my hand from his steady arm, he gazed at me and patted my hand. Then he let go. Now I am giving myself away, moving forward without a clear destination. Here I go.


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