Saturday, April 30, 2016

Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

When the film came out, an old friend from Connecticut gushed to me that I simply must see it -- she'd been engrossed, thinking of me the whole time. I was already familiar with the story of Chris McCandless, and I sat back in my chair and stared at her email. Great. She sees a movie about a reckless, feckless young man who meets his death of unpreparedness in Alaska, and all she can think of is me.  Years later, I got around to reading the book by Jon Krakauer, which he'd expanded from his initial article on McCandless' misadventures in Outside magazine (1993).

I admire Jon Krakauer as a writer, and with Into the Wild, as with his other books I've read, I find his research meticulous and his perspective balanced and fair. What's intriguing about this story in particular is the amount of fervor it's kicked up. People's reactions to it seem to run from one extreme to the other with precious little in the grey zone.
A surprising number of people have been affected by the story of Chris McCandless's life and death. In the weeks and months following the publication of the article in Outside, it generated more mail than any other article in the magazine's history. This correspondence, as one might expect, reflected sharply divergent points of view: Some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity -- and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.
Krakauer opens with the two years after his college graduation that Chris McCandless (who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp) spent tramping around the western US. He interviews people who had encountered and befriended the young man. Invariably, he touched them. They did not describe him as a foolhardy, wild-eyed dreamer. He seemed to them thoughtful, intense, principled and well-read. He appeared to be competent.

In 1992, Alex/Chris decided to move farther from society by heading into the back of beyond, Alaska. An Alaskan electrician, Jim Gallien, picked up the young hitchhiker and, on their drive to the trail head Alex was seeking, Gallien tried to convince him that he was woefully ill-prepared.
Still, Gallien was concerned. Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior, which in April still lay buried under the winter snowpack. Alex's cheap leather hiking boots were neither waterproof nor well insulated. His rifle was only .22 caliber, a bore too small to rely on if he expected to kill large animals like moose and caribou, which he would have to eat if he hoped to remain very long in the country. He had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid in his possession was a tattered state road map he'd scrounged at a gas station.
(Keep that roadmap in mind; it turned out to be significant.) As I read the passage above, my own alarm systems were going off. I've had enough experience in the New England forests in winter to know that this young man was not equipped for the environment. That was his ignorance. When Gallien questioned him about emergency contacts, his arrogance came out.
Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans, that in fact he hadn't spoken to his family in nearly two years. "I'm absolutely positive," he assured Gallien,"I won't run into anything I can't deal with on my own." 
Like so many of us who have gone on big, far, fantastic journeys of one sort or another, McCandless was inspired by books. The works of Jack London, in particular, drew him to Alaska. Krakauer, an outdoorsy adventurer himself, reminds us how important it is to separate the romance from the realities. London may not have been the inspiration McCandless was really looking for.
He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London's romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he'd died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print.
How many of us have survived one challenge in the outdoors only to extrapolate foolishly that we're now ready to survive another in a completely different environment? I managed to trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back, so summiting Annapurna should be no problem, right? Wrong.
As he trudged expectantly down the trail in a fake-fur parka, his rifle slung over one shoulder, the only food McCandless carried was a ten-pound bag of long-grained rice -- and the two sandwiches and bag of corn chips that Gallien had contributed. A year earlier he'd subsisted for more than a month beside the Gulf of California on five pounds of rice and a bounty of fish caught with a cheap rod and reel, an experience that made him confident he could harvest enough food to survive an extended stay in the Alaska wilderness, too.
But even as many readers are about to write McCandless off as a fool, Krakauer draws us back to his sympathetic qualities, the things that even his most virulent critics will probably relate to -- even the Alaskans who were most vocal about the fiasco. They, too, probably mourn the days when Thoreau could get away from it all by retreating to a cabin on Walden Pond, which is now in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, all too accessible.
Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless's friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris "was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today's society gives people." In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map -- not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.
In the end, of course, Alexander Supertramp died in Alaska, starving to death after a failed attempt to cross a rain-swollen river to get out. The irony? If he'd had a topographical map and a compass, rather than that tattered roadmap from a gas station, he'd have seen a place to safely cross the river just a bit farther downstream from where he was. I've had some near misses in the outdoors, and I cringe when I look back on them. But for a friend's mini-mag flashlight with which we'd signalled for help, I'd have been a casualty, too. (Note, she had the flashlight. I didn't.) I lived to learn from my mistakes, and Chris McCandless didn't. That may be the biggest difference between us, and so I, like Jon Krakauer, find it very difficult to damn him. Or to idolise him.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

When I finished The Art of Memoir, there was more text highlighted than not. It strikes me as a book that would charm readers who have no especial interest in memoirs. It's simply a great read. Full stop. For anyone who's even toying with writing anything autobiographical, it's required reading.

Karr begins by asking the essential question:  Should you even try to write memoir? Maybe it's simply not your metier. The autobiographer, she maintains, is of a different species than the novelist.
I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them...
Unless you're a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That's the quality I've found most consistently in those life-story writers I've met. Truth is not their enemy. It's the bannister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs...
"Writing is easy. You just sit down at your typewriter and open a vein."  That quote (and variations upon it) have been attributed to several writers. Karr suggests that memoir is an especially torturous and bloody exercise.
But nobody I know who's written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there's suffering involved. When I'm trying to edit or coach somebody through one, I usually wind up feeling like the mean sergeant played by Tom Berenger in Platoon. He's leaning over a screaming soldier whose guts are extruding, and in a husky whisper, Berenger says through gritted teeth, "Take the pain," till the guy shuts up and mechanically starts stuffing his guts back in.
As a skilled procrastinator in the names of research and perfectionism, I read this bit of insight as kick in the teeth. And the language with which Karr launched it -- fabulous writing!
You can do "research," i.e. postponing writing, till Jesus dons a nightie. But your memoir's real enemy is blinking back at you from the shaving glass when you floss at night -- your ignorant ego and its myriad masks.
I found this quote insightful, poignant. Somewhat depressing.
We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory. -- Louise Glück, "Nostos"
Karr dedicates one chapter to the concept of honesty, truthfulness when writing memoir, or any other form of ostensible non-fiction. Full disclosure is critical, she maintains. At least let readers know where things stand.
Novelist Pam Houston claimed her novels are 82 percent true and ascribes that same percentage to her nonfiction -- fair enough.
I marvelled at In Cold Blood, sensing intuitively that it wasn't 100% factual. I was willing to accept, though, that it might well be 100% true.
You can always hide behind the fiction label, as Truman Capote did (perhaps first) in 1966 with his "nonfiction novel," In Cold Blood; or as Philip Roth did in 1993 with his roman-à-clef Operation Shylock, which he published as fiction, while claiming it was God's own truth.
When it comes to memoir, however, Mary Karr has little tolerance for even colouring the truth, never mind embroidering it.
It's as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, "I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn't notice it at all." To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.
Memory is, of course, imperfect and untrustworthy. One way to address this is to admit it freely, to write with a certain lack of authority.
Maxine Hong Kingston and Michael Herr don't manufacture authoritative, third-person, I-am-a-camera views. Their books don't masquerade as fact. They let you in on how their own prejudices mold memory's sifter. By transcribing the mind so its edges show, a writer constantly reminds the reader that he's not watching crisp external events played from a digital archive. It's the speaker's truth alone. In this way, the form constantly disavows the rigors of objective truth.
Most memoirists (like most writers of all kinds) get stuck. They get stuck on how to tell something, or even whether to tell it. Here is some of Karr's excellent advice on getting over this particular species of writer's block, getting the memoirist back on a productive and honest track.
And here are some questions that might nudge you along. What were you trying to get, and how? Which ways worked? Which didn't? If it's a particularly awful memory for your character, you have to be sure not to make it more awful than it was. Many of us disassociate or check out during awful times, so maybe you want to convey that to the reader. The memoirist's job is not to add explosive whammies on every page, but to help the average person come in. Otherwise, the reader will gawk at you like somebody on Springer, or she'll pity you -- in both cases, you lose some authority. The book becomes too much about your feeling and not enough about the reader's. Finally, put it aside. Put it out of your head at least a week. You want it to set up like jello. And when you pick it back up, ask yourself, What haven't I said? How might someone else involved have seen it differently? And most of all, how am I afraid of appearing? Go beyond looking bad or good. Is there posturing or self-consciousness you could cut or correct or confess and make use of?
Ouch. Part of the deal is revealing one's shadow side.
You'll need both sides of yourself -- the beautiful and the beastly -- to hold a reader's attention. Sadly, without a writer's dark side on view -- the pettiness and vanity and schemes -- pages give off the whiff of bullshit. People may like you because you're warm, but you can also be quick to anger or too intense. Your gift for charm and confidence hides a gift for scheming and deceit. You're withdrawn and deep but also slightly scornful of others. A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else -- nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can't be the memoirist's ... We can accept anything from a memoirist but deceit, which is -- almost always -- a shallow person's lack of self-knowledge.
Blind spots? Me? What blind spots?
Trying to help students diagnose their own blind spots, I often ask the following questions: 1.What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages. 2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are? (Lovers/family yelling at you when they're mad have answered this one for you, btw.) 3. Is there any verbal signpost you can look for that suggests you're posturing? One kid I know started bringing in references to metal bands to show how cool he was. I might start yakking about philosophy.
Of course reality differs, both individually and regionally...
In Garcia Marquez, a dead man's dentures sprout yellow flowers in his toothglass, and butterflies appear in the presence of a great beauty. "Surreal?" Garcia Marquez once quipped. "That's how life is in South America."
Mary Karr seems to have an enviable font of material for memoir.
Still, our household had been the site of some flaming jackpots. Asked once how a bullet hole landed in a kitchen tile, Mother said, succinctly, "He moved." And that wasn't the only firearm incident. My sister once quipped to Mother as the tile guy fingered a bullet hole, "Isn't that where you shot at Daddy?" and Mother came back, "No, that's where I shot at Larry. Over there's where I shot at your daddy." (Which also tells you why memoir suited me. With characters this good, why make shit up?)
What about writing about others in your memoir? This is a terrific list of rules, regs and hints, number 6 especially -- "Give information in the form you received it."
For the record, here are my rules for dealing with others: 1.Notify subjects way in advance, detailing parts that might make them wince. So far, no one has ever winced. 2.On pain of death, don't show pages to anybody mid-process. You want them to see your best work, polished. 3.As Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, "If you're writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love." 4.Related to the above: I never speak with authority about how people feel or what their motives were. I may guess at it, but I always let the reader know that's speculative. I keep the focus on my own innards. 5.If somebody's opinion of what happened wholly opposes mine, I mention it in passing without feeling obliged to represent it. 6. Don't use jargon to describe people. It's both disrespectful and bad writing. I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink. Give information in the form you received it. 7.Let your friends choose their pseudonyms. 8.Try to consider the whole time you're working how your views -- especially the harsh ones -- may be wrong. Correct as needed. 9. With your closest compadres and touchy material, you might sit with them (same house or town, maybe not same room) while they read pages that may be painful for them. 10. I'd cut anything that someone just flat-out denies. Then again, in my family, all the worst stuff was long confessed to before I started writing the first tome. 11. Let the reader know how subjective your point of view is. This is in some way a form of respect to your subjects, who might disagree.
Speaking of mining your own history, don't forget the colloquialisms! It's a memoir, not a doctoral thesis.
The talk of my barroom aficionado daddy ran rich with figurative language. If a woman had an ample backside, he might say, "She had a butt like two bulldogs fighting in a bag," which -- believe it or not -- was a positive attribute. Instead of milking this current running naturally through my head, I'd tried in my novel to sound like some fluffy, ruffly Little Bo Peep.
But how to write about emotional trauma, especially that of childhood? Here, too, Karr returns to the show-don't-tell formula. Feel it in your body, not your brain.
If you trust that what you felt deeply warrants your emotional response, try to honor your past by writing it that way. Sometimes true agony is not even discernible to the human eye. As a kid, when I saw my mother's mouth become a straight line and heard her speak in a Yankee accent as her posture went super straight, I knew she was tanked. The rat scrabble this set off in my head, as I tried to figure out how to stop the chaos approaching us like a runaway train, was torment. Rendering a small external stimulus inside a child's impotent body can provide a moving experience for a reader.
This image is pure gold.
In memoir the heart is the brain. It's the Geiger counter you run over memory's landscape looking for precious metals to light up.
It sounds like it should be so easy, such a straightforward project. You start at the beginning and write till its done. Then you start writing...
You think you know the story so well. It's a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I've ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it's like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.
Then comes the question of what are you required to reveal, and what may you hide? That to some extent may be subjective. I appreciate Karr's opinion in the example below, especially her acceptance of "drawing a curtain" across certain events "without seeming coy".  I think every memoirist will have to decide what is "too private". For Elizabeth Gilbert, clearly, talking openly about her finances was more comfortable than revealing the dissolution of her marriage.
Another divorce failure, I think, occurs in Elizabeth Gilbert's much-adored Eat, Pray, Love, which otherwise displays a nice mix of circumspection and candor. She overtly blames herself for the demise of her marriage, for instance, and for not wanting to have a baby. She claims the reasons for the divorce are too private -- drawing a curtain I respect across those events without seeming coy. But right after, she mulls over at considerable length the dickering details of her husband's settlement. Is that not too private? She first offers to sell everything, and then to split it fifty-fifty. "What if he took all the assets and I took all the blame? [He] was also asking for things I never even considered (a stake in the royalties of books I'd written during the marriage, a cut of possible future movie rights to my work, a share of my retirement accounts). . . . It would cost me dearly, but a fight in the courts would be infinitely more expensive and time-consuming, not to mention soul-corroding..."
Mary Karr asserts that one is temperamentally a novelist or a non-fiction writer. One or the other.
So for those who think a writer can flip a switch and go from nonfiction to novel based on social convenience, I've got some bad news. Your psychological proclivity determines which better fits your story. That decision grows from the nature of your character. Autonomy in such choices is a fairy tale.
A real novelist tells the greater truth with a mask on. I once suggested to Don DeLillo that he write a memoir, and he recoiled.
One of the most controversial memoirs in recent times was Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, which received both raves and brickbats. (It told the story of her four-year incestuous relationship with her father.) Her experience begs the question, why do this? Why write this memoir?
So many reviewers deemed her motives venal, but if you deduct the cost of mandatory therapy to get through the story in her heart before undertaking the book's writing, she'd have made more money working a deep-fat fryer, which might have also been more fun. But with such personal reasons for writing, why publish it at all? To understand, you'd have to marshal some empathy for any rape or incest survivor. It's through shame and silence that a perpetrator seeks to capture someone else's soul, sentencing her to lifetime collusion with him. "On top of everything else," Harrison told me, "I was supposed to keep my mouth shut forever." Either she published her story or remained complicit with her seducer, which meant actually being allied with him against herself. Publishing the book was a way to reclaim "what was left of me."
Karr shares plenty of her own experience drafting her own memoir(s), as well, and she's as unsparing with herself as she is with any other writer.
For Lit, I spent maybe two years writing about short stints in California and Mexico and the UK and some old boyfriends before I realized that those stories -- by then hundreds of pages -- lacked emotional gravitas. They were youthful years of drinking and frittering time away -- shallow, easy, sparkly, rather than the more tormented phases in my life, which were less glisteny on the surface and, ergo, harder to rout out. Plus they had zip to do with my mother, whom I'd vowed not to write about anymore. But -- surprise! -- that was exactly what I needed to write about -- how making peace with her legacy was something I had to do to become a mother myself. Still, those early pages I threw away were somehow necessary, even if I wrote past them. They were way stations I needed to visit to eliminate them from the final itinerary.