Reengaging with the Fucker

The first rule is that there are no rules that are not fit to be changed. A few days ago I bravely claimed on this public forum that I would write 2000 words a day. Well, almost every day. Well, maybe not really. Here’s what happened between then and today.

After working on Chapter 3 and writing my last blog post in a flush of new writing, I decided maybe I should go to Chapter 1. So I sat and my desk, opened a new document, opened the old document, and cut and pasted a few things. And it sucked. It began somewhere in the Depths of Boredom and then meandered through a deep grove of No Fucking Plot At All, wait have some Pretty Sentences!

I despaired. But because I am an optimist without a current paper to edit, I persevered. I checked out Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I have mostly stopped reading writing books, because I understand (at least intellectually) how to get to the page and how to get words down. I understand the basics of the craft of poetry. But something clearly is missing in my understanding of the craft of nonfiction.

Ms. Gornick does not disappoint. She talks about how you have the situation of the book. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald loses her father and adopts a goshawk. But that isn’t the story. The story is that Macdonald, in her grief, tries to rid herself of all humanity and live wild like a hawk. (This is a brutal simplification. Please don’t decide not to read this book based on my description. It is such a good book.) Then she finds her way back to being a feeling, hurt, complicated human. That is the wisdom.

This is why Julie Powell’s memoir Cleaving sucked so bad. The situation was amazing. She cheats on her husband in what appears to be a perfectly happy marriage. She goes gets an apprenticeship as a butcher. Excellent! But by the end of the book Powell still does not know why she originally cheated on her husband in what, according to her, was a happy marriage. There is no story. The narrator is not to be trusted because she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing. This is why you don’t write a memoir in a year even if you get a fancy contract after the sale of your first book (Julia and Julie). Maybe she fucked up her marriage in order to have something to write about.

Gornick insists that you have to know why you are telling the story and thus create a persona that is able to tell that story. The persona is not a lie, it is the character that is you. “In each case [of the books she mentions earlier in the chapter] the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve that insight.” Powell does not know her insight, so we don’t really arrive anywhere. We get that she likes rough and/or dangerous sex (thus the affair). We don’t know why or why at that moment of time did she begin on the affair. (For a good review, read this.)

Macdonald knows she is writing about her journey into wildness and back again. She does not mention details that are not closely related to that story, even if they are related to the situation (the author, her dead father, the hawk).

I am hoping I can take my story and tattoo it to my fucking forehead keep it in my brain long enough to fashion myself as a persona. I might come up with some key words. Maybe this is how the ADD memoirist figures out finally what is important to the story and what is not. Does this tidbit fit my key word? No? Delete. (The ADD memoirist can’t figure out what is not important to the story because the gaps in her executive function give her no ability to discriminate.)

What books do you hate and why?


10 responses to “Reengaging with the Fucker

  1. “Cleave” is an interesting word. Its two meaning are exactly opposite.

    I happen to think that the narrator/persona MUST be as much a character in the writer’s mind as any character in the story itself. Who is telling your story? And why? Once you have those figured out, you’re halfway done.

  2. I love that Vivian Gornick book. It’s one I go back to again and again. Haven’t we all read stories (essays, memoirs, etc) with a riveting situation yet in the end we say, “yeah, but who cares?”

    In Best American Essays 2013, Cheryl Strayed says she tells her students the invisible last line in every essay — and this goes for nonfiction books too — should be: “and nothing was ever the same again.” There has to be something at stake. The reader needs to feel the ground shift.

    2,000 words a day? You da man. I’ve learned I’ve got a 700 word cap before I have to go lie down somewhere.

    • That’s excellent advice.

      As for 2,000 words a day, most of it was cut and paste. In a heroic effort I did all of that one day, wrassled the chapter into order another day, and then couldn’t work at all the following day because my brain was spaghetti.

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