Sep 242011

It probably doesn’t bear reminding, but I will remind you anyway. In the March/April issue of the AWP Writers’ Chronicle, Aleksander Hemon, in an interview with Jeanie Chung, contrasted fiction and memoir and found the latter wanting in some way, even cowardly. Sue William Silverman, my friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a famous practitioner of the art of memoir-writing, wrote a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and was also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole story (“Hemon, Silverman, and What Makes Good Writing“) on her blog and pointed out that just months after casting aspersions on the genre in the Chronicle, Hemon published a memoir of his daughter’s illness in The New Yorker. (In the nature of things, he probably did the interview long before he wrote the memoir, but the two came out in ironic proximity.)

Now Sue has contributed a call to the barricades, an inspirational rationale for memoir-writing which, yes, includes a small excursus into her own acts of memoir (and delightful photographs which are a memoir in themselves).

Sue William Silverman is the author of numerous books, essays, and works on craft, and she is a profound influence in the lives of her students (see the recent NC Childhood essay by Kim Aubrey as an example). Her memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, while her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir was awarded Honorable Mention in ForeWord Review’s book-of-the-year award.


The Courage to Write and Publish Your Story: Five Reasons Why it’s Important to Write Memoir

By Sue William Silverman



I’m frequently asked why I write memoir. Why reveal intimate details about my life to total strangers? Why put myself, or my family, through the pain—some would even say shame—of telling family secrets? Why not just be quiet, keep personal information to myself?

Here is how I answer:

Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, my family seemed normal, happy. My father had an important career. We lived in nice houses and wore expensive clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, masking the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud.

Later, as an adult, I continued to live a double life—this time as a sex addict. Again, in public, I appeared normal, with a professional career and a seemingly good marriage. No one knew that the shiny façade hid dark secrets: I cheated on my husband; I was close to emotional and spiritual death.

Before I began to write, I didn’t fully understand the effects of the past on the present. For years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs in which no one, especially me, seemed fully alive.

Then I started putting words on the page. Finally, I chose to examine my past. Through this exploration, it was as if I slowly began to awake after living in a state of emotional suspension. I wrote my way into the darkness—not to dwell there—but to shed light on it. My entire life changed, all for the better. I no longer lived a lie.

I encourage you to explore, through writing, your life, as well. Whether your childhood was traumatic or not, whether your current life is in disarray, chances are you have a story to tell. Whether, say, you’re figuring out a divorce, finally coming to terms, perhaps, with an alcoholic mother or an absent father, struggling to repair a relationship with an estranged sibling or battling a physical disease, we write memoir to better understand ourselves, as well as to bring a reader with us on our journeys.

Here are five reasons why your life will be enhanced by writing a memoir, by telling your own story.

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Sep 232011


Writing a War Story

by Richard Farrell


For the better part of two years, I wrote a war story that wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, the damned thing refused to work.  It’s not that I spent six-hundred days toiling away at the same pages like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, though at times it did feel that way. No, my devotion to this story meandered over those two years. I would chip away at it for a few weeks, abandon it for a while, and then come back to it. I deleted scenes and added new ones. I switched from a first-person narrator to cascading, multiple third-person points of view. I changed the title, the main characters, the setting, the tone. Every so often I sought help, from  my writing group, from workshops and from trusted grad school advisors. The consensus was always the same: the story floundered.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I was writing about the firebombing of Tokyo, a particularly horrific incendiary attack by U.S. bombers in March of 1945. The ensuing firestorm was more grisly, more deadly even, than the atomic bombs that were later dropped. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died in a single night. Shadows of the dead were burned into sidewalks. Downtown Tokyo was obliterated.  Many consider it to be the deadliest day in history. The target of the attack was not Japan’s munitions factories, electrical grids or coke ovens; it was not enemy harbors or troops or barracks; the target was the citizenry of Tokyo, non-combatants, women and children.

Mother and daughter after raid on Tokyo. (Note: This famous photo is often associated with atomic attacks. Either way, the impact is obvious.)

Almost as troubling as the stark reality of this raid is the fact that the firebombing of Tokyo rarely warrants more than a footnote in the history books. I was (and am) both fascinated and terrified by the casual way we forget these things.

Still, these were only facts, and none of them made for a good war story. I wanted to understand why.

 In Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story,” he writes:

A war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of the story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

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Sep 222011


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Ruth Meehan’s And the Red Man Went Green brings the chaos and potential of one day down to a single moment crossing a street. Though it’s not ostensibly about a kiss, the narrative has much in common with Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss,” in which a young soldier is accidentally kissed by a woman, sending a shudder of changes through his plain life.

The director Richard LaGravanese also found inspiration in Chekhov’s short story for the key moment when his protagonist in the film Living Out Loud (starring Holly Hunter–the movie was originally called The Kiss) is surprised out of the grief she is suffering at the loss of her twenty-year relationship.

Each of these stories touches on sudden moments when strangers are accidentally and sometimes unconsciously there for one another.

Meehan is an Irish writer / director and she has shot several short films. And the Red Man . . . is her second short and it did well at festivals, winning the Special Jury prize a the Tehran film Festival and the Prix Canal+ at Brest.

If you enjoy Meehan’s very short film, you can see another by her (based on a true story about an adventurous cat) here:

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Sep 192011

leslie-ullman_09Leslie Ullman. Photo by Jamie Clifford.

The beginning of craft is in reading. And herewith NC presents a gorgeous essay by Leslie Ullman on reading poetry, on poetic “centers” and “dark stars,” about the nature of lyric and the links between poetry and love. The heart of the essay is in Leslie’s deft and expansive analyses of poems by Adrienne Rich, James Tate, Mary Oliver, James Wright, and William Stafford, the whole vectoring toward a lovely line from a Rich poem: “a house lit by the friction of your mind” which is as good a summation of the contemporary lyric poem as any I have seen.

Leslie Ullman is a prize-winning poet, friend, colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) and ski instructor (in Taos). Also a graceful, intelligent presence whenever she is around. She is Professor Emerita at University Texas-El Paso, where she taught for 25 years and started the Bilingual MFA Program. She has published three poetry collections: Natural Histories, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1979; Dreams by No One’s Daughter, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987; and Slow Work Through Sand, co-winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, University of Iowa Press, 1998. Individual poems have appeared in numerous magazine, including Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, Arts & Letters, and Poet Lore. Her essays have been published in Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, and The AWP Writer’s Chronicle. In addition to working for Vermont College of the Fine Arts, Leslie is a certified ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley. The essay originally appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Spring, 2001.



A “Dark Star” Passes Through It

By Leslie Ullman


An inspired, well-made poem is all muscle, all linked movement and harmonious gestures, efficient and lovely as a snake moving across rocks or blacktop or water before it disappears into tall grass. Break this good poem down, and one can see it as a construct of images, phrases, observations, maybe even statements—gestures which have practical uses and varying levels of energy when taken one at a time. Often these gestures are indeed taken one at a time, in workshops or in classrooms at any level, where “understanding” the poem is a more graspable and thus a more settled-for goal than feeling the poem. Start discussing feeling, and one is in that no-man’s land where the boundaries between one’s private experience of the poem and the intentions of the poem can blur. Language becomes untrustworthy. Perception becomes suspect. It is one thing to watch a snake move and imagine its slipperiness, and another to pick it up with an ungloved hand and then sustain and communicate to someone else the sensations of smooth muscle against the palm–at least in the arena of a workshop or literature class, where the task is to find usable terms and defend a point of view in the midst of peers and teachers. But in private, one might well pick up the snake, find one’s hand and arm moving in a dance with its body and feel the marvelous interlocking of its sinews and scales, the dry smoothness of it, not a slipperiness at all.

My first experience of the quietly electrifying  impact a poem can have occurred when I was sitting alone on a dock one summer before my junior year in college. Since then, I have sought ways to honor what can scarcely be described about a well-made and deeply inspired poem–the vatic sureness, the textured play of utterance and silence, the sense of inevitability or urgency from which a poem seems to arise, the resonance some images have, the way the last line reverberates in the reader’s mind and sends her back into the poem again and again only to find each reading richer than the last. In graduate school I was introduced to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist and philosopher of science who understood reverberation as the operative word for describing the dynamics of literary expression, emphasizing the wealth of association and memory touched off in the reader, often a recognition of something deeply buried within herself, as part of a literary work’s own properties and realm of intentions. Bachelard helped me take seriously the sensations that arise from inspired reading, the literal twinges in the gut that tell me when I have encountered a particularly important image or passage even before my head tells me why it’s important. A few years later,  a conversation with my then-colleague James Ragan helped me begin to find a vocabulary for including and then using sensation as a starting point for grasping the whole of a poem, its deft and muscular movement, in a way that might appeal to readers at any level of experience.

Over the years I have played with the notion of a poem’s “center” in so many contexts as a teacher, and thus have made it so deeply my own, that I can no longer determine how much of what I have to say on this matter originates with me or with Jim. But I can say that the basic idea came from him, and that when he introduced it to me, a light went on in my head and has stayed on ever since. Jim said, if I remember correctly, that every poem has a “center,” a line or group of lines, which reveal the heart of the poem but should not be confused with theme or content. Rather, they are lines with a particular sort of energy, almost always a heightened energy, and one way to identify them is to imagine that when the writer drafted these particular lines, she could feel the force and trajectory of the finished poem even if many details still needed to be worked out—that the poem from that time forward held mystery and  potential completeness for the writer and would indeed be worth finishing. I loved this. To enter a poem in the skin of the writer, to feel the itch of important lines without quite yet knowing what they meant–this seemed an engaging and intuitively accurate way to be a reader.

I soon discovered that one cannot identify a poem’s center without dwelling within each of a poem’s gestures—each image, each transition, each close-up or wide-angle view—without, in other words, feeling the weave of the entire texture, its larger and smaller variations. This is not the work of intellect or analysis. Imagine being blindfolded, learning the layout of a room by groping your way along its walls and furnishings, letting your sense of touch replace your eyes and yield the landscape of the room in a visceral, intimate way. This is what happens when one reads a poem with the intent of identifying its center. The center derives its energy from how it works in its relation to other moments in the poem. To feel the center of a poem, one has to have felt the significance of all of the poem’s moments, moments of lesser as well as greater intensity that nevertheless are crucial to the poem’s structure and cumulative power. This is what picking up the snake—not the devious Edenic archetype, but the lovely work of nature—is all about.

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