In grad school I had some great teachers, but no mentors. In some ways I didn’t need that. I paid ridiculously close attention to what my professors said and didn’t say. I read the books they mentioned off-hand, and the books they had written. The school didn’t really encourage closeness (cubicles instead of office space will do that), and I didn’t want to impinge on my professors’ time. I didn’t even know what kind of questions to ask.
I’ve kept in touch with two of my professors over the years. One I used to see at poetry readings. Another sent me a nice note after I submitted some poetry to his magazine. He read my poetry manuscript and gave me some (desperately needed) ideas for order. One of my professors just came out with a memoir. I bought it in hardcover and read about half of it last night.
I see it as a teaching document. This man was the best teacher I had in grad school, and I still remember a lot of what he had to say about memoir. I can see his engagement with the subject of memoir in his book. I find it useful as a student, but like it less as a reader. However, when he’s teaching by example, his prose is beautiful and his thinking is good. He started out as a poet, and he writes the way poets write: Vignettes that relate, but sometimes you don’t understand why these stories were told in that order until the end. This is how I write. This is how my father used to tell stories.
I am reading this book with my notebook at my side. Even the epigraph (especially the epigraph) gave me three ideas of how to approach my subject. I like that he thinks about the bigger picture. He came to read at the college where I work, and he told the kids something he must have told me when I took his class. You have three views, as a memoir writer. There is the personal: the you at the time, the reflective: you the writer, and the historical: how does your experience fit in with your time and place?
I want to think more deeply about the last one. I know what issues in my book I want to talk about, what links me from my experience to the world (or as another prof. said, the “so what?”). But I don’t know how to do it. My attempts to talk about it are stilted. But the ideas are good. I will keep thinking and resist the urge to cut it all out because it doesn’t work. Yet.
Who do you learn from?