For anyone who enjoys reading memoirs—or is thinking about writing one—this collection offers a master class from nine distinguished authors: Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alfred Kazin, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Eileen Simpson.
“Annie Dillard talks of her Pittsburgh childhood and her moment of waking to the world outside. Russell Baker explains why his first draft of Growing Up was so bad that he had to start over again. Alfred Kazin finds that writing about his Brooklyn childhood connected him with the great tradition of Emerson and Whitman. Toni Morrison tells why her fiction uses not only family history but the slave narratives of her people. Lewis Thomas traces the evolution of his singular self from primeval bacteria to contemporary scientist whose drive to be useful is the most fundamental of all biological necessities. . . . Delightful and instructive.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
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WILLIAM ZINSSER: Introduction
This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.
The boom has its ultimate symbol in Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's account of his squalid childhood in an Irish slum. In its literary shape it's a classic memoir, recalling a particular period and place in the writer's life. It also hit the double jackpot of critical and popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and perching at the top of the bestseller lists for well over a year. Beyond all that, it's the perfect product of our confessional times. Until this decade memoir writers tended to stop short of harsh reality, cloaking with modesty their most private and shameful memories. Today no remembered episode is too sordid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out for the wonderment of the masses in books and magazines and on talk shows.
The marvel of Frank McCourt's childhood is that he survived it, as he himself notes in the third sentence of his book. The second marvel is that he was able to triumph over it in Angela's Ashes, beating back the past with grace and humor and with the power of language. Those same qualities are at the heart of all the good memoirs of the 1990s — books such as Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life and Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. Anyone might think that the domestic chaos and alcoholism and violence that enveloped those writers when they were young would have long since hardened the heart. Both Karr and Wolff were lugged around the country by barely competent mothers running from unstable males and taking up with men who were even worse — nightmarish new stepfathers for children whose real fathers had forsaken them. Yet they look back with compassion.
"My mother didn't read this book until it was complete," Mary Karr writes in her preface. "However, for two years she freely answered questions and did research for me, even when she was ill. She has been unreserved in her encouragement of this work, though much in the story pains her. Her bravery is laudable. Her support means everything." Tobias Wolff also withheld his memoir from his mother, and he was nervous about how she would react to it. "In her life she didn't get anything right," he once said, "except one thing, and that was love. After reading the book she said: 'I'm glad you didn't tidy me up and turn me into someone I wasn't. That would have meant that I hadn't been of any use to you as a mother.'"
If these books by McCourt, Hamill, Karr, and Wolff represent the new memoir at its best, it's because they were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There's no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the writers are as honest about their own young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people, prisoners of our own destructiveness, and we have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives.
Such tolerance, however, is no longer an American virtue. The national appetite for true confession has loosed a torrent of memoirs that are little more than therapy, the authors bashing their parents and wallowing in the lurid details of their tussle with drink, drug addiction, rape, sexual abuse, incest, anorexia, obesity, codependency, depression, attempted suicide, and other fashionable talk-show syndromes. These chronicles of shame and victimhood are the dark side of the personal narrative boom, giving the form a bad name. If memoir has become mere self-indulgence and reprisal — so goes the argument — it must be a degraded genre.
The truth is that memoir writing, like every other kind of writing, comes in both good and bad varieties. That's the only standard that matters. Whether the authors of certain notorious recent memoirs ought to have revealed as much as they did, breaking powerful taboos and social covenants, isn't finally the issue. The issue is: Is it a good book or a bad book?
A good memoir requires two elements — one of art, the other of craft. The first element is integrity of intention. Memoir is the best search mechanism that writers are given. Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own.
The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won't. We like to think that Thoreau went home to Concord and just wrote up his notes. He didn't. He wrote seven drafts of Walden in eight years, piecing together by what Margaret Fuller called the mosaic method a book that seems casual and even chatty. Thoreau wasn't a woodsman when he went to the woods; he was a writer, and he wrote one of our sacred texts. Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.
This phenomenon — multiple ownership of the same past — was first revealed to me in the 1960s, when I was invited to write one-fifth of a book. It was called Five Boyhoods, and it consisted of memoirs written by five men who grew up in successive decades of the twentieth century. The first chapter, by Howard Lindsay, described his turn-of-the-century boyhood in Atlantic City, a sunny Victorian world not much different from the one he would inhabit many years later as coauthor and star of one of Broadway's longest-running plays, Life with Father. The second chapter ("1910s"), by Harry Golden, evoked a world as cramped as Lindsay's was spacious: the dark ghetto of immigrant Jews on New fork's Lower East Side. Chapter 3, on the 1920s, was by Walt Kelly, who belonged to an Irish clan that seemed to be in perpetual migration between Bridgeport and Philadelphia — hardly the twenties of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age," but could Fitzgerald have created Pogo? My chapter ("1930s") was about a boyhood spent in a vale of prosperous WASPs on the north shore of Long Island, and the fifth chapter, by John Updike, recalled what it was like to grow up in the 1940s as the only child of schoolteachers in a small town in Pennsylvania. Updike's father, haunted by the fear of poverty, was glad the family lived next to a poorhouse; if necessary he could walk there.
Five boyhoods, as unalike as American boyhoods could be. Yet what struck me about the five accounts was how many themes they had in common. One was loneliness, the universal plight. Another was humor, the universal solvent. I also saw that memory, that powerful writer's tool, can be highly unreliable: the boy's remembered truth is often different from his parents' remembered truth. My mother, after reading my chapter, cried because my memory of my boyhood was less golden than her memory of my boyhood. Had I subconsciously reinvented it to make it more lonely than it really was? Had she subconsciously never noticed?
Mine was the most privileged of the five boyhoods. In 1920 my parents had built a large and agreeable house — one of those summery, white-shingled houses with many screened porches — on four acres of hilly land near the end of King's Point, overlooking Manhasset Bay and Long Island Sound. Boats and water were my view; I thought it was as beautiful a location for a home as any boy could ask for. My father's business in New York withstood the Depression, so my three older sisters and I were sheltered from its cold winds, and we grew up in a happy family, well loved and well provided for.
But the beautiful house was two miles from the nearest town and not near any other house. I wanted to live on a block, like everybody else, doing block things. I was also the only boy for miles around. By some Mendelian fluke, no boys had been born to any of the nearby families. It was a neighborhood of girls, and that's what our house was full of: my sisters and their friends, giggling over girlish secrets, talking a language laden with mysteries. One of the first words I can remember hearing was "organdy." What did it mean? I never knew and never dared to ask.
Outflanked, I escaped into baseball. Once I entered that world of flanneled heroes I thought about little else. Sometimes during the long summers I tried to dragoon the girls into playing ball. I was a proto-Charlie Brown, ever optimistic that they would catch a fly hit in their direction or throw a runner out. But no runner got thrown out. I learned very early the fact that girls "throw funny." They explained that it was because their arms are "set different." Was that an anatomical fact, or just another strand in the folklore of growing up, like saltpeter in the school food and poison at the center of the golf ball? Whatever the truth, I was stuck with the result.
So began the solitary ballgames that were to occupy much of my youth. Every day I threw a tennis ball for hours against the side of our house, adroitly fielding with a glove the line drives and grounders that sprang out of the quivering shingles, impersonating whole major league teams and keeping elaborate box scores. Little did my parents, trapped inside their booming home, realize that the person out there on the grass wasn't me. That impeccable stylist at second base was Charlie Gehringer of the Detroit Tigers; that gazelle in the outfield was Joe DiMaggio. If my family had only looked out the window they could have seen greatness.
Being a baseball addict in those days was harder work than it is today. Television hadn't been born, and games weren't even broadcast on the radio. When I was nine my parents sent me to a summer camp on Cape Cod, hoping I might develop a fondness for canoeing or some other, less tyrannical sport. But one day at camp I made a great discovery: An announcer named Fred Hoey on a Boston radio station did play-by-play accounts of all the home games of the Red Sox and the Braves. How idyllic, I thought, to live near Boston; no wonder it was called the Athens of America. For years afterward I fiddled with my radio dial, trying to bring Hoey's voice through the atmosphere to my bedside Philco. Once I thought I heard him, very faintly.
In such a deprived climate I subsisted on the printed word. At breakfast I gorged myself on the baseball articles and box scores in the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. In the evening I waited for my father to come home so that I could grab his New York Sun, a paper as baseball-crazed as I was, and in between I would reread my copies of Baseball magazine or study with monkish dedication what was fast becoming the biggest Big League Gum collection in the East. It was from those baseball writers that I first glimpsed what it might mean to be a newspaperman. They were my first "influence," the mentors who nudged me down the path to my life's work.
But the memoir I wrote for Five Boyhoods was only indirectly about my obsession with baseball. It was really the story of a boy contending with certain kinds of isolation. Size was another isolating factor. I was the smallest of boys, late to grow, living in a society of girls who shot up like mutants and were five-foot-nine by the age of twelve. Nowhere was the disparity sharper than at the dances I was made to attend throughout my youth. The tribal rules required every boy to bring a gardenia to the girl who had invited him, which she would pin to the bosom of her gown. Too young to appreciate the bosom, I was just tall enough for my nose to be pressed into the gardenia I had brought to adorn it. The sickly smell of that flower was like chloroform as I lurched round and round the dance floor. Talk was out of the question; my lofty partner was just as isolated and resentful. What I remember about those nights is the quality of time standing still. I thought they would never end.
In Five Boyhoods I cloaked these unhappy memories in humor — an old habit. Humor is the writer's armor against the hard emotions — and therefore, in the case of memoir, one more distortion of the truth. Probably I also used humor as a kindness to my family. When I started writing that memoir I was half paralyzed by the awareness that my parents and my sisters were looking over my shoulder, if not actually perched there. My first drafts were stiff, and although the style became warmer with each rewrite, I never really relaxed and enjoyed it. Since then, reading other memoirs, I've often wondered how many passengers were along on the ride, subtly altering the past.
My grandmother, my father's mother, was a stern presence in our lives. A second-generation American, she hadn't lost the Germanic relish for telling people off, and she had many didactic maxims to reinforce her point. "Kalt Kaffee macht schön," she would declare, wagging her forefinger, leaving us to deconstruct the dreadful message. "Cold coffee makes beautiful," it said, as if hot coffee were some kind of self-indulgence, or perhaps a known cause of ugliness. "Morgen Stund hat Gold im Mund" ("The morning hour has gold in its mouth") she would say to grandchildren who slept late. Frida Zinsser was a woman of fierce pride, bent on cultural improvement for herself and her family — she hectored my father and his brother Rudolph to play the piano and the violin with her long after they had lost interest in those instruments — and in my memoir I duly noted her strength. But I also made it clear that she was no fun.
After Five Boyhoods came out my mother tried to set me straight. "Grandma really wasn't like that," she said, defending the mother-in-law who had made her own life far from easy. "She was unhappy and really quite shy, and she very much wanted to be liked." Maybe so; the truth is somewhere between my mother's version and mine. But she was like that to me — and that's the only truth a memoir writer can work with.
All else being subjective, I probably got only one part of my memoir "right" — objectively accurate to all the principal players — and that was the part about the much-loved house and the site it occupied. I described the house, with its sunlit rooms and its pleasant porches that enabled us to watch an endless armada of boats: sailboats, motorboats, excursion boats, launches, freighters, tankers, trawlers, tugs, barges, Navy destroyers, and, every night at six, one of the two night steamers of the Fall River Line — aging belles named the Priscilla and the Commonwealth. I described the sounds of the water that were threaded through our lives: the chime of a bell buoy, the mournful foghorn of Execution Light, the nighttime conversation of eelers fishing near the shore, the unsteady drone of an outboard motor, which, even more than the banging of a screen door, still means summer to me. I described the hill in front of our house that we sledded down on our Flexible Flyers. One winter Long Island Sound froze over and cars drove around on the ice.
A decade after World War II my parents began to find the house hard to manage, and they sold it and moved to Manhattan. By then quite a few of their grandchildren — my sisters' children — had played on those porches and watched those boats and listened to the foghorn at night. The house had become a homestead; another generation would remember it. I only went back to see it once, after my mother's funeral at the old family church. My own children were with me, and as I drove down the once-rural King's Point Road I could have been in any affluent suburb anywhere. The sloping fields that I remembered on both sides of the road were so dense with ranch houses and three-car garages and swimming pools that I had no sense of their topography. I only knew it in my bones.
At the end of the road, however, our house was still king of the hill. Someone had told me that it had changed hands over the years, and on this day the house happened to be between occupants again. Only a contractor was there. She invited us in and showed us how the new owner had torn out much of the interior and was preparing to reincarnate it in Beverly Hills modern. Terrazzo squares were piled on the old wooden floors that they would soon cover; unassembled parts for several Jacuzzis awaited the plumber. Fair enough — I had no claim on the house. Its integrity was gone, but at least it was still there. I could tell my children, "This is the house I grew up in."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Inventing the Truth"
Copyright © 1998 William K. Zinsser.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
WILLIAM ZINSSER: Introduction,
RUSSELL BAKER: Life with Mother,
JILL KER CONWAY: Points of Departure,
FRANK McCOURT: Learning to Chill Out,
EILEEN SIMPSON: Poets in My Youth,
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Lifting the Veil,
ALFRED KAZIN: The Past Breaks Out,
ANNIE DILLARD: To Fashion a Text,
IAN FRAZIER: Looking for My Family,
TONI MORRISON: The Site of Memory,
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