On writing the personal

I awoke at 5:30 a.m. this morning to face my MFA manuscript.  Ever since one of my chapters was accepted for publication, I knew I would have to return to this bohemoth thing I created and review it, see if there it has any more potential or if it should be boxed up and hidden away for good.  I’ve looked it over a few times since graduating, and it alternately embarrasses and impresses me. If nothing else, it’s rather spectacular to have 200 pages of your own words in front of you, however trite they sometimes may be.  For those of you unfamiliar with my manuscript, it’s a collection of personal essays called Haunted by Hemingway which is, of course, the title essay.   Each essay explores one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories from my point of view, which at the time I defined as feminist/naturalist (whatever that means, I have no idea).  At one time I used a quote from each short story to anchor the narrative but as the book grew professors found it a crutch (they were right) and so I eliminated the epigraphs.  Thinking myself very clever, I also made sure each chapter had at least one allusion to T.S. Eliot and/or W.B. Yeat’s poetry.  Upon my early morning review, this is what I determined:

One essay, the one about religion, needs to be scrapped entirely. It is long and ungainly and awful and there isn’t one redeemable thing about it and needs to go.

The opening essay, “A Place to Rest”and the title essay, “Haunted by Hemingway,” can become one through revision, but only after reading the rest of Hemingway’s work.

The essay “War,” about my relationship with my father, a Vietnam Veteran, could be entirely reworked, with the war in Iraq incorporated, and might have potential that way. It does not now, the way it stands.

Two other essays, “Aspen Dance” and “It’s Go Time” can be merged and revised and maybe, maybe have something. I’m skeptical, but willing to try.

“Sanctuary,” the longest essay, needs at least 10,000 words cut, and even then, it’s all about death, so I’ll have to think on it a little longer.

“A Line in the Sand” needs significantly more research incorporated.

“In my Imagination” needs serious attention and more research but could possibly make into some feminist kind of publication somewhere…I submitted this to my workshop this Sunday.

The concluding essay – Accepted for Publication pending revisions

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Don’t you hate it when NPR runs phonathons instead of regular programming? If I ever win the powerball lottery I’m giving my local station millions of dollars. Millions. Anyway.

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Going through my manuscript proved to be a valuable exercise, if only because it helped me recognize the value of the work I did in graduate school.  For me, the time I spent working on my MFA and teaching was incredibly tumultuous, and I spent a lot of it feeling overwhelmed, overworked, insecure and exhausted. I spent many nights attempting to sleep on our living room couch instead of in bed with my husband, staring out our french doors, beyond our patio, oddly entranced with the orange glow that settles over the Pittsburgh skyline. I had no ability, like I had in my prior life, to take life one day at a time and approach my craft with humility or gratitude, because always THE BOOK stretched out before me, an unrelenting and unforgiving requirement of graduation I had to fulfill. Three years seems like an extraordinary amount of time, when I was applying for graduate school, especially because I thought I wanted to be the female David Sedaris and since that goal required only mining my own history and not opening my eyes to the larger world I assumed two hundred pages over three years would be no sweat.

Until, that is, I actually arrived at graduate school and realized all the books EVERYBODY else was writing.  One girl was writing about the women in Andy Warhol’s life, another about the history of Alaska. A good friend of mine wrote a book on alternative medicine and yet another wrote about a group of silent nuns.  The professors at my school essentially shunned memoir as unchallenging, uninteresting and unnecessary and admittedly for a while I felt bamboozled…after all, I had told them in my application essay the kind of writer I wanted to be – they had reviewed 50 pages of my writing to see what kind of work I do – how could I possibly be expected to compete or even participate in class with these hip, smart writers who somehow found within themselves the wherewithall to shut out everything except their research, and their writing? My first year I hid from all of it, burying myself in the mandatory literature and pedagogy classes I had to take – a world that made sense.  Over time, working with my chairman and some literature professors, I cobbled together the above idea and found it gave me just enough structure to finally tap into the freedom writing can sometimes provide, and I steadfastly remained committed to using the personal to tell (what I hoped would be) the universal.  And funnily enough, as I wrote, my colleagues one by one sacrificed their original ideas and turned to memoir as well. The girl writing about Warhol turned to writing a family memoir. The woman writing about the history of Alaska wrote about her missing dad. One by one our professors had at their hands a series of women turning in, for the most part, well-written memoirs (from a feminist perspective we could talk about the power of this genre and how it gives a voice to the previously voiceless, but that’s not why we are here today).  Most of our professors found very little value in this work, but as one woman put it – to write a book in three years, well – you almost have to write memoir. It’s the only thing you write well enough to be considered an expert. 

I often hear criticism of personal writing, whether it’s a critic busily abhorring blogs or fiction writers lamenting the role memoir now plays on the best seller list or academics overly concerned with our collective descent into navel gazing and I happen to think all of their points are valid, but after examining where I once was (a 24 year old writer solely interested in writing about herself) to where I am now (a 29 year old writer determined to properly cement her essays and articles in research) I can’t help but think if I hadn’t first been allowed the freedom by one very caring graduate school advisor to write about myself, I might never have made the mental hurdle to finally understanding how very, very well done the memoir and the personal must be in order to be pertinent – I might have given up.  My colleagues from graduate school seem to understand the same thing – they are now reporters and essayists and teachers, writing articles on abortion and gardening and charter schools and faith.  But I truly believe because we all first chose to write what we knew, and write it well,  instead of writing what could potentially be publishable, we better understand our place in this world, as writers and as human beings.

I believe two kinds of writers exist – writers who are born and writers who are made.  When I think of naturally born writers I think of people like Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Pat Conroy – writers who seem to know as soon as they are conscious they are meant to be writers above all else and recognize the inherent foolishness in doing anything other than writing, writing, writing – and then there are the rest of us – folks who have impulses for other vocations, who go to school to learn how to read and write, folks who must overcome a host of daily distractions in order to write one good sentence. 

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Okay, nothing is worse than the Ira Glass plea, is there? “This message is for you, yes, you at home, sitting around, not donating money to public radio. Do you know that public radio is in danger? Do you?”

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I’m guess I don’t really have a particular point to all of this, now that I’ve come to the end of the post.  Just some reflections since I spent the morning looking over my manuscript, and thinking about the writer I once was, and who I am now, and who I hope to be.  I’m incredibly grateful I once had an advisor who saw in my navel-gazing some potential, and I’m even more thankful he gave me room to try, and room to fail.  I hope all of the men and women out in the world, the ones who weren’t born writers but instead struggle and cry and feel panicky on the instead nearly constantly, eventually allow themselves the opportunity to first, write what they want to write, and then to write that well.  I think only after doing that can horizons widen and a different kind of writing begin – writing that moves beyond the personal and begins to search for meaning beyond the self.

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12 Responses to On writing the personal

  1. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Courtney. I really enjoyed it, especially this: “I truly believe because we all first chose to write what we knew, and write it well, instead of writing what could potentially be publishable, we better understand our place in this world, as writers and as human beings.” Isn’t that a great lesson to have learned? I so look forward to reading the concluding essay when it is published.

  2. yogamum says:

    Wow. Just…wow. What a great post.

  3. LK says:

    Good for you, Courtney.

    Happy 2007 — look forward to reading more of your posts in the new year!

  4. BikeProf says:

    Your collection sounds very, very interesting. I love the idea of a series of feminist/naturalist essays, at least partly because my diss is on ecofeminism. Also, I would love to read “War.” You have to get it published so I can read it! I have been thinking along similar lines lately, and I would be very interested to see your take on things.

  5. Cam says:

    Oh Courtney! I love the idea of the revisioning of Hemingway’s stories from a female/feminist perspective. As I read this, I started thinking about how so many of the stories in In Our Time could be told from a woman’s point of view, esp Cat in the Rain which seems in a careless reading to be from a woman’s perspective, but, of course, isn’t. Knock my socks off, what an idea!

    It was so fashionable when I was in school (late 70s/early 80s) to hate Hemingway. Almost traitorous to like him if you called yourself a feminist. Which I hated, because I did like Hemingway.

    Rewrite your book as you see fit. Look at it critically to see what you can make better, not for what you might hide away. It’s sounds like a wonderful gem that needs some polishing, not the gravel and dirt at the bottom of the miner’s pan.

    Can’t wait to hear more about it in the future.

  6. Charlotte – thanks for the kind comments! It’s funny, as you grow as a writer you actually adopt some of your own theories about writing, what makes it good, what makes it suffer, etc…

    Yogamum – um, I’m blushing!

    LK – Yay! You are home! I am so, so happy. You better be up and postign soon – I’ve missed you.

    Bikeprof – I don’t think I’ll ever publish War the way it is now because it’s incredibly personal and doesn’t cast my dad in a flattering light at all. I do hope to revise it in a way that he wouldn’t be angered by it, and if that’s the case and it gets published I’ll email you the original so you can see the changes. Although maybe I’ll just post War here on the site – my dad doesn’t know how to use a computer and since I have no intention of publishing it I’m not concerned about the copywrite…

    Cam, what kind things to say! I’ve always been torn about Hemingway – I think some of his writing is just incredible, but a lot of his female characters fall flat for me, particularly in his novels. I grew up in the area where he summered as a boy, and my great-grandfather was his surgeon after WWI – an interesting family tidbit!

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    Very interesting post. You’ve reminded me of the process of writing my dissertation (5 years) and how the thing lived with me at all times and how now I really don’t want to look back at it, although I may have to at some point. Reading one’s own writing can be painful! Your essay collection sounds wonderful, and I really enjoyed reading about the process of producing it.

  8. Pauline says:

    That’s such a great post! It takes real courage to have an honest look on one’s work, especially after a few years’ time. Most of the time I prefer to hide it away lest I’d want to bin it altogether. You gave me inspiration to write more, thank you!

  9. litlove says:

    Loved the post, Courtney! Don’t know if you’re interested, but Shoshana Felman in her book, What Does Woman Want? has a very interesting piece of analysis on women’s relationship to memoir and autobiography, and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is a wonderful book on writing from a personal point of view.

  10. Dorothy, I can imagine after five years with your dissertation why you are hesitant to return to it. I think I’m returning more to my manuscript for ideas than anything else. Interestingly (at least, to me) since I started writing fiction I haven’t had nearly as many essay ideas as I used to and I wonder if perhaps i used them all up in this manuscript…

    Pauline – thanks so much for the kind comments! I know what you mean about hiding away the old stuff…that’s what I prefer, too!

    Litlove – thanks! I’ve added both books to my TBR pile…I’ve heard ot the Sitatuion and the Story but not What Does Woman Want? – hope your holiday is great!

  11. LK says:

    I would second Litlove’s suggestion on Gornick (well, frankly, I would probably second Litlove’s suggestion on ANY book), but I studied with Gornick, and she’s a really great writer and excellent women’s studies scholar. (In addition to the book Litlove mentioned, Gornick wrote a semi-classic memoir, Fierce Attachments.)

  12. Emily says:

    Yes, I hate, hate, hate it when NPR is having fundraisers. This is a wonderful, reflective post. I doubt I’d have the courage to revisit such a work of writing, if I had one, although I’ve had that experience of being both embarrassed and impressed (the former always expected, the latter surprising) when re-reading something I wrote some time ago. As I get older, I’m discovering I’m becoming a little less embarrassed, so I hope that happens for you, too.

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