Friday, August 18, 2017

Nick Neely: Some Phases of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”


1.      To preface: I am not a trained physicist or astronomer. I am an amateur who began this fleeting study with too limited a telescope and maybe the wrong lens. I think I may have burned my eyes by reading it several times, but I trust the damage isn’t forever. Wear your welding glasses—that’s my best advice—and log your own observations below.

2.      The essay begins with mournful descent and dislocation: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.” We’re immediately thrown into the valley of the shadow, a place that is, and is not, the Yakima Valley in Washington State. It sounds, justly, like a coming panic attack. At the hotel, Dillard begins to introduce all sorts of, to borrow her phrase, “complex interior junk,” most of which are head-scratchers at first. She mentions the drunk men in the lobby, a fish in its aquarium, a canary in its cage, a child’s bucket and shovel—none of it seems especially relevant, but it’s just the kind of random stuff that’s good for atmosphere when cast in a certain light. She remembers reading in the lobby about gold mines that “extend so deeply into the Earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands. … When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.” Why does she tell us this? Already she’s established a mood, a space, where she can introduce just about anything and it will seem right and ominous. But what’s most unforgettable is the vegetable clown. Dillard recalls lying in bed the night before the eclipse and seeing, on the hotel wall, a painting of “a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables”: “The clown was bald. Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his small and laughing human eyes ….” Finishing her description of this likable “lunatic,” who is also composed of string beans, parsley, and chili peppers, she abruptly continues, “To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours ….” The juxtaposition makes a clear suggestion: this clown is “ourselves,” the vegetable body with an expiration date, in which the eyes of what’s distinctly human—that is spiritual, not corporeal—shine out for a brief moment in time. And already, on page one, time begins to scramble: One has to recall the curious paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the sixteenth century Milanese painter behind the Four Seasons, each a smiling man-cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.

3.      When the eclipse hits, time and the senses are thrown into disarray. She sees the world as if it were simulacra. “The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead.  … I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages … I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.” One notes the halting repetition (throughout the essay) that produces a sense of immediacy—of thinking and its instantaneous revision—and of disbelief or trauma. This passage and much of the essay also moves by metaphor, which (as my brother smartly pointed out), is a kind of eclipse: the “real” is hidden behind the figure, and yet for a moment its size and shape are made clearer. In any case, Dillard, and all of us, are thrown both forward and back: Back to the nineteenth century, and further back to the Middle Ages. Yet forward to our own deaths. The essay takes on the feel of a choppy pool, waves rebounding off walls, past and future, to create a slack tide of time. When she reports, “My mind was going out,” she means not truly going “blank,” but to the ultimate reaches of imagination. We’re not sure where, exactly, we stand: “The grass at our feet was wild barley.” Does she mean literally at her feet, in Yakima? Seems not, for she continues: “It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, about the Euphrates Valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down.” Here is an ur-vision of life long ago in a valley like the Yakima. Maybe this is the Elysian Fields or Asphodel Meadows. It is certainly “the region of dread” she anticipates as the essay begins.

4.      “We had all started down a chute of time,” as Dillard summarizes—one she carefully orchestrates. At the start of the third section, she actualizes the essay as a space of descent and time travel (if it wasn’t already clear): “It is now that temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold has risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the strata again.” Here one begins to suspect that her eclipse experience also functions as a metaphor, an allegory, for the essayist’s process: We must face the region of dread, of drafting. We must search for a way to describe this impossible-to-describe experience. Simultaneously, some of the essay’s “interior junk,” its earlier images, begin to well up and reveal their complexity. Double-meanings accrue and eclipse one another, obscuring and highlighting. It’s a sloshing trough of metaphor. The gold mine article from the hotel returns and resonates. Now her gold might be the memory of the eclipse, that “old wedding band in the sky” (the strata might be the “cirrostratus” in which that day in 1979 began). In part, the subject of the essay becomes memory itself, the difficulty of mining it. If we’re to believe the narrator, two years have passed since the event. We might imagine Dillard took some (probably rather good) notes, or even wrote up until that point in the draft, before she fatigued and could on longer face the dread, and stuffed the essay in the proverbial drawer. But now she is ready to descend deeper into the mine/mind.

5.      She struggles to capture the eclipse: It doesn’t look like a dragon, but it does look like a “lens cover, or the lid of a pot.” “It obliterated meaning itself,” Dillard concedes. Like a mushroom cloud, “what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking.” “The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array [of an eclipse] than language can cover the breath and simultaneity of internal experience.” She feels, in essence, defeated. “It [the eclipsed sun] was as useless a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as memory.” The essayist’s means and materials—language and memory—feel inadequate and isolating. What finally surfaces is a portrait, a paragraph, that describes something of an awful Resurrection—dead spectators standing on the hills not just misremembering their lives, but having “forgotten those they had loved.” What could be a worse fate? Maybe this is not Resurrection, but purgatory. Here is darkness visible, rock bottom—not the thrilling sublime one might anticipate from an eclipse event, but something tipped too far into terror. If the trajectory of the essay describes, or mimics, the phases of an eclipse (of course, it must), we are in totality.

6.      Then the bright bead of the sun at the edge. Dillard forces us to visit the worst, a nihilistic landscape where “we cared for nothing,” where memory falters, so that she can ask us to realize what we have. The fourth section begins: “We teach our children one thing only, as we are taught: to wake up.” This is forever Annie Dillard’s project, to jar us from complacency and engage with the world, the present, while we still can. It might seem a pedantic project in this essay if she didn’t paint her own melancholic descent into “the deeps” as, potentially, a symptom of that complacency. She finds herself jarred at breakfast at a diner after the eclipse: “A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, ‘Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.’ … He was a walking alarm clock.” Her timing is impeccable: At this point in the essay, we all needed this reality check (of course, Dillard can’t then resist turning this Life Saver, a mint candy, breath-freshening O, into a life saver buoy, which brings her the surface). This kid’s thought is as valid or true as her own heavy sifting through the metaphysical strata of past and future. In part, this assertion feels a tad disingenuous: She’s aware of her powers. She obviously relishes her mode. For my part, she distinguishes too strongly between mind and body: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computers terminals printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull.” But these details, she admits, are important. All those things for which we have no words are lost,” she writes. I take this to mean: Describe your eclipse any old way that occurs to you. Remember that when you try to write your own essay about Monday’s two minutes of totality. Salvation is through a simple thought likeLife Saver.”  The main thing is to continue to dive, to mine …  “ The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel,” writes Dillard. “… With these we try to save our very lives.”


7.      One last observation: She writes of the moon’s shadow that races 1,800 miles an hour across the landscape, “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like car out of control on a turn.” What sheer madness that these huge masses—one that we call home, one that we call the moon, one the we call the sun—are in something of a stable orbit. The whole arrangement is so unlikely, incredible, incomprehensible. This fragile clockwork of loose spheres, in Dillard’s arrangement, also refers to an individual life, to a relationship, to memory in general, but it ultimately refers to the art of the essay. Reading “Total Eclipse,” I feel this bodily: The unlikely images hurtling past each other, the abrupt and leaping pivots, the confusion of time and space—what are the chances that it could all adhere, all harmonize. And yet it does. The props from the hotel, including the child’s shovel and bucket, finally come whirling in to cast their full metaphoric shadow. Even the vegetable clown returns to illuminate: You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your bucket and shovel and no longer care.” It’s good to remember that an eclipse, and a metaphor, is just an artful coincidence. But it still might mean everything. Go chase the eclipse, whatever that means to you, and then try with all your might to do it justice—dig yourself out of that grave.

*
Nick Neely's first book of essays, Coast Range: A Collection from the Pacific Edge, was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing and CLMP's Firecracker Award for creative nonfiction. He is also the author of the essay chapbook Chiton, and Other Creatures, from New Michigan Press. His nonfiction has appeared in journals such as Orion, Kenyon Review, and The Georgia Review. He lives in Hailey, Idaho with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Alternative Routes: An Interview with Jericho Parms

Lost Wax by Jericho Parms (University of Georgia Press, 2016) is an amalgamation of forms and styles: lyrical, narrative, essay, and travelogue. It’s a fun read for viewing new frames encasing investigations that journey both longitudinally and mentally. The book is playful, but willing to be knife-jabbingly tragic. It’s well-researched but personal. Lost Wax, on the whole, is a balanced, nuanced collection for those who need a present “I” that doesn’t sit only with the self but expands into other subjects, such as art and identity. Published by the University of Georgia Press as part of their Crux Series in literary nonfiction, the book aptly ushers the genre forward.  Jericho was kind enough to answer some questions about form, essays (in terms of her work and the genre), process, and travel.

Clinton Crockett Peters: Reading this book I got the sense that I was reading a form of “Travel Essay.” Or really, a friend of mine asked for suggestions for a class she’s teaching on Travel Essay, as opposed to Travel Writing, and your book just seemed perfect. It seems rooted in the Montaignian sense of the term “essay” and it bounces us around places geographically as well as cerebrally. Do you mind that term? What does genre mean for you anyway? Where do you find yourself on the Barnes & Nobles shelf and what shelf (real or imaginary) would you like to find yourself on?

Jericho Parms:
I do like that term both for the way it sounds and for the potential for conjoined meaning. Travel: to journey, and essay: an attempt. The combined sum of those two words elicits a sense of urgency that I admire; its impact is like that of enjambment in poetry. The term feels fervent, fertile—both meandering and rooted, restless and searching. I like to think of genres like any other boundary: little more than lines drawn in the sand (subject to the whim of the wind) or cracks in concrete—which might mean the world to a child trying to avoid them in an act of play, but like most boundaries, edges, classifications, labels, I think they are often given too much value. I prefer lines that are open to being blurred, bent, blended. That said, just like boundaries in the sense of parameters and frames, genre distinctions can serve us by providing the initial lines within which to color before we decide whether or not to forgo the outline before us. Genre feels akin to any other “rule” in that rules are made to be broken and are best broken when one has taken the time to understand them.

As much as I love the idea of appearing on the shelves of Barnes & Noble’s essays section (happy, too, to know that Barnes & Noble does in fact have an essays section), one of the more gratifying moments since the publication of Lost Wax was receiving an email from an acquaintance who said he had stumbled upon the book in a small library in Texas. Seeing your book in a bookstore is no doubt satisfying but I love the thought of the book nestled in a library stack, a book exchange at a café somewhere, a lending kiosk in Bryant Park, a free box in Berlin or Montreal. It’s the potential for unexpected reach that most excites me, the idea that the book might be found by happenstance, might be party to a serendipitous encounter.

CCP: You seem to have caught the travel bug early. How do you think this shaped you and your writing, and what would you recommend to people who maybe are not able to travel?

JP: Yes, and I credit that travel bug and sense of exploration in large part to the way I grew up. I was raised in New York in a pretty diverse and artistic family. Although we had little financially, I benefited from the riches of support and I am grateful for that. So, when I graduated high school I decided to defer college in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. When I was enrolled in college, I decided to take time off, saved up from my work-study job and traveled to Guatemala, and again to Spain. My ability to travel has come largely out of a stubborn determination and (having held jobs since I was young) a certain work ethic, which is to say that if the passion is there, financial means need not preclude or inhibit one’s interest in traveling. I think we often put too much emphasis on the financial burdens of travel and allow such constraints to become roadblocks. It can be easier to remain “in place” rather than pursue other views and different vantage points, but I find it worthwhile to do so, particularly when we are young and untethered by employment, family, or other responsibilities. I am certainly guilty of this—and more so in recent years as I have grown more tethered. For those with mobility and the means (and motivation) to travel, I would say find every opportunity to do so, and find ways of making those opportunities meaningful to writing. There are an increasing number of wonderful conferences and workshops abroad. For those without the means physically or otherwise to board a bus, train, or plane elsewhere I would say there is no limit to our ability to “travel” locally via museums (particularly encyclopedic and natural history museums), galleries, concerts, festivals, an alternative route to work, a new restaurant, or the far side of town. To circle back to our definitions, the word travel is defined as to go, to move in a given direction or path, but it is also defined by the act of journeying through or over, to be moved from place to place. Travel is a term I take liberty to define loosely, and within its loose definition there is unending possibility.

CCP: I love the research in this book, how it lets my mind toggle between some of the personal essaying and the research-driven writing. It feels like the braids and interconnections build off each other and call-and-respond. Maybe it’s a chicken-egg thing, but I’m wondering if there’s a general sense that your writing begins as a question and you need to look it up on the digital ether or at a library or if it’s a curiosity about the self that feels muted without the extra research?


JP: I’m inclined to say it’s a combination of both. I agree with your chicken-egg analogy. I often think, too, of the process as a revolving door that begins with a question, image, idea, observation, that, in turn, leads to further questions, images, ideas… and so on. Curiosity about the self drives many an essay forward, and the true inquiry beneath an essay is not always immediately evident. In the essay “On Puddling,” for example I knew I wanted to write about the death of a friend whom I didn’t know well, but whose untimely passing had stuck with me (having happened during a time in my life when I experienced a series of such losses). The present “occasion” of the essay examines driving dirt roads and watching butterflies gather in the soil. In this case, research on Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship to butterflies became, for various reasons, the connecting tissue between the past and present threads of the essay. What began as seemingly peripheral research on Lepidoptera and Nabokov’s lifelong fondness for the species, led me to expose the underlying instinct or true core of the essay: my need to list, catalogue, preserve, make last, when life’s experience (stubbornly fleeting and difficult to pin down) had taught me otherwise.

CCP: Also, have you met writers and readers that seem to have an allergy to researched material? I’ve always been fascinated by this response. Does research seem necessary for you despite maybe turning some people off?

JP: Sometimes I do wonder if there isn’t a bug going around when it comes to readers who cringe at researched material, but it may just come down to a question of audience, a writer’s voice, and the potential chemistry that exists in the space between reader and writer. Mimi Schwartz has a great piece on “Research and Creative Nonfiction” where she describes the need to “write so the seams of research don’t show” using masterful examples from essayists such as Barbara Hurd and Jocelyn Bartkevicius. And I agree, in good research-driven essays “fact and feeling must blend.” For me, whether or not researched material makes it into the final version of an essay, some form of research usually feels necessary to my writing process. Research helps reveal my curiosities, preoccupations, obsessions. And yet, I will be the first to admit that sometimes research can be a crutch, a distraction, can overburden the writing, or overshadow the underlying impulse toward personal truth in a piece. I’ve gone down endless paths of research only to find myself at the bottomless pit of information about, say, chairs depicted throughout history, the puddling behavior of butterflies, or every instance of red appearing in the natural world. Months ago I grew obsessed with the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction; most recently the tradition of Ama divers in Japan has captured my attention—but what am I really writing about? At some point, I inevitably have to pull myself out of the external world of information and obscure fact, vast as it is, and remember why I am writing in the first place, which tends to ground me again in the personal. No essay is going to contain every reference to chairs throughout art history, (my essay “Still Life with Chair” certainly didn’t) but it might contain a handful that I’ve decided may be useful. And yet, that handful of researched chair images is nothing without the one image of a chair depicted in a painting that I remember from one night of my life—the central image that serves as an entry point into personal narrative and remembered experience. For some readers research will never fly. For me, as a reader, in order for research to be compelling, it has to be in service of a larger idea that or experience that an essay is trying to unpack. As Schwartz suggests, it should feel relatively natural, seamless.

CCP: I know you’ve talked about your essay forms in other interviews, but I want to mention how I admire the way you experiment with form and structure in the book. I for one love this even though I feel like my own writing is formally predictable. Did this come naturally for you? What kinds of thinking went behind your final forms? Any forms not make the cut?

JP: In my writing process, an essay’s final form is often the result of several misfits and failures. I love essays that speak to both the universal and the personal, that peer in close while carrying an awareness of a panoramic view—essays in which the structure further informs content and meaning. With the unending possibilities of form, what is most important to me is to make sure a chosen form feels warranted, not contrived. I’m not interested in bells and whistles for the sake of it. (And, yes, most times I’ve approached a piece thinking I’ll write the perfect list essay or another found or experimental form, they often dead end—and quickly). So I tend to allow form to emerge later in the process. The title essay of the book, “Lost Wax” for example, was originally written as a straightforward narrative following a solitary drive to a Colorado hot spring. And while that overall narrative still exists in the final essay, the revision process led to that initial narrative being largely fragmented: interrupted by meditations on Greek and Roman sculptures, detours into memory, meandering digressions on love, youth and idealism. Ultimately the content of the essay and the central metaphor of mold, impression, and absence (as understood through the lost wax casting method) felt too confined within a traditional narrative. It begged for a form that felt both entwined and ephemeral.

CCP: This leads me to something else I’ve been thinking about lately. As a teacher I now bear the responsibility of giving new writers direction. Uncannily, I remember things that my earliest mentors said, and I wonder about new writers developing a sense of themselves. How would you say you began sharpening the tone that would become Lost Wax. What were some pivotal moments for you?

JP: It is a gift to have the voices of several mentors in my head. I believe the generosity and guidance of other writers can have a remarkable impact on new writers developing a sense of self and voice. In addition to a handful of brilliant and saintly teachers, I would cite my reading life as having the most direct influence on my writing, particularly the essays that compose Lost Wax. There were certainly definitive moments, during my time in an MFA program, for example, or while traveling, when my devouring of essay collections reached a height, but equal was (as it has always been) my passion for poetry. Somewhere between the two forms, I found my way to the final versions of these essays. What I love about poetry, like good essay collections, is the way that even in book form, each essay and poem retains its own properties while contributing to a sense of cohesion and collectivism.

My earliest interest in writing came in the all-too-familiar form of writing bad poetry in high school, and by the time I was in college I had an impassioned, though largely unfocused, interest in journalism. The turn for me was after college, when I was reading the work of essayists—particularly female essayists—who allowed themselves to enter into their own writing, and whom, as Joan Didion has suggested, wrote not to explain or tell but to understand. And these writers were doing so not in the realm of traditional journalism or in the traditional sense of memoir, but through the essay. Kate Zambreno has written about the act of taking the self out of the essay as a form of repression, “like obeying a gag order” which, looking back, felt true to me at the time. The pretext of objectivity in journalistic writing felt stifling. At the same time, I was working at a museum. Surrounded once again by art of all kinds, I eventually began to explore my own ideas, memories and associations afforded to me through sustained observations on art and object. Although we don’t need to defend this in the same way it once needed to be defended, it feels worth iterating: self-expression is a legitimate form of art, one best conveyed with a balance that takes into account the context of the larger world. In that way, the essay has become something of a lifeline for me, in much the same way art has always been. Just as paintings were once referred to as mirrors, I see the essay as a similar vehicle that can teach us about perspective, grace, humility, voice and observation—about our collective human condition and how to be active participants, thinkers, idea-lovers, and meaning-makers in the world.

CCP: I want to go back to genre for a second if that’s all right. I’m wondering where you see the essay genre or the nonfiction canon moving? What shape is it in, and where would you say it’s headed?

JP: The essay genre is in good shape! Perhaps I am overly optimistic, or simply a blind believer, but I feel that creative nonfiction, specifically the essay in its shape-shifting forms, is well-positioned to affect change. I believe in the essay for many reasons and I hope to see more and more diverse voices taking up this genre because in form and function it mirrors our feeling and thinking insides, gives dignity to uncertainty, subverts and questions. It is an inclusive form and carries vast potential to contribute to the good in the world. That sounds lofty, I realize. Pretentious, even. But once again so much comes down to the origins of language: to essay is simply to attempt, to forge meaning, understanding, a connection with others. We may not always succeed, but you bet we’ll try and try and try again.

We often emphasize questions of literary craft when we discuss the essay as a genre but I hope to see us embrace the essay’s activist roots as well. From Montaigne and Woolf to Orwell and McCarthy, Baldwin and Didion, the essay’s lineage has often embraced speaking out, thinking “on” and “of” and “against” stagnant notions of collective identity or the nuances of humanity. In an ever-changing cultural landscape, I’m interested in the ways in which writers can push in, pull out, and re-draw the boundaries of literary form to serve our nuanced experiences and how hybrid forms (those blended lines) allow writers to navigate and/or negate the boundaries of identity, history, place, and memory.

CCP: Last, what’s your process like? What’s a good writing day for you?

JP: Ah, the question of process. Process is a constant struggle for me. (But I’m working on it!) My writing process is amorphous and erratic, bingy and indulgent. It creeps up and sidles, pokes and barges in, and sometimes squats ominously in the corner. I have no illusion about the reality of endurance and fortitude that is required of a writer to write—to write well, that is. So I see process as less dependent on ability or knack for words than a willingness to do the work, just like anything else. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, James Baldwin wrote “…beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” I have always admired his phrasing: in large part practical, with a just hint of romance.

A good writing day starts with writing and ends with something else. This is to say, I’m much more inclined, when given the chance, to write in the morning when there is less distraction filtering in and out of my head. I am not one to pull an all-nighter at my writing desk, it is far too tempting to go to bed early with a book or a movie instead, and I’m a stickler for natural light. Beyond those rough parameters, I write when I can. I am a messy drafter, restless in the early stages of an idea, but I slow down and become deliberate when revising, which, for me, is the true joy of writing—a process I sometimes wish would never have to end, and often think it never truly does.

*

Jericho Parms' writing has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, American Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her work has been noted in Best American Essays, and anthologized in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays By Women. She is both a graduate and the Assistant Director of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches in the writing at Champlain College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and elsewhere.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The ‘Personal-Essay Boom’ is Over the Page: The Audio-Biography of Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir




Remember back in May when Jia Tolentino trolled the hell out of us stewards of the personal essay? In her article in The New Yorker, Tolentino crept up on the cadaverous subgenre, checked her watch all coroner-like, and declared the personal essay, then and there: dead. If you were on Twitter that day (we’re now 76 days “postmortem”), you may still be smarting from her claims. Tolentino borrowed perspective from Laura Bennett of Slate who unceremoniously pilloried the “first-person industrial complex,” suggesting it has become overinflated, passé: “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey,” Bennett says, claiming that pitches nowadays “center on systemic rather than personal trauma, or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new [post-election] reality.”

Still, there seems to be a terminological, if not taxonomical miscalculation in the New Yorker Article. As Zoë Bossiere writes on the Brevity blog: “Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, navel-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than.” Bossiere enters the coroner’s exam room. Like a mother leaning over her son’s corpse, she checks for birthmarks, acne pocks, weird follicles. We hold out hope that the cadaver has been mis-ID’d, that the personal essay might still be at large. And then, Bossiere sees the stitching on the side of the torso, the cotton batting in place of its viscera. A decoy! As Bossiere puts it, Tolentino seems to be speaking of the click-bait confessional, not the well-crafted personal essay.[1] We sigh our relief. 

*

But what if it isn’t the ‘personal’ that is experiencing a slippage, but the ‘essay’ itself? What if, in this moment, we’re witnessing the transmigration of the memoir to a new medium? In recent years, there has been a preponderance of lyricists cornering the confessional market, baring their souls in high literary fashion.

I’m not just talking about Courtney Barnett’s seemingly misplaced rationalization of her grocery shopping habits at the beginning of a pop-rock song.[2] Or Chance the Rapper’s sentimental, yet vital memories of high school laced with shout-outs to proper nouns like Vic, Justin, and Mama Jan (whom he keeps forever to himself).[3]  Or even the preternatural straight-shooting proffered by Josh Tillman (moniker Father John Misty). No matter how gobsmacked you might be by the flickers of authenticity on I Love You, Honeybear, it’s so saturated in satire, irony, and cross-generational trolling that its confessional aspects are doomed (maybe even designed) to feel calculated. Instead, I’m talking about sincere sincerity whose contemporary emergence belongs to the vulnerable/“hypothermic” quaver of Conor Oberst or the haunting melancholy of Cat Power.

The recent album-as-memoir that most disarmed me was 2014’s Benji. On the LP, a sullen (as ever) Mark Kozelek (aka Sun Kil Moon) unleashes his own sad-sack brand of Proustian minutiae on his listener. Lampshade shopping. Crab-cake eating. Midnight RN shifts in Wadsworth, Ohio. Visiting his dad’s paralyzed friend in a basement in Steubenville. Kozelek’s lyrics are intentionally clunky and granular: 'And now when I watch “the Song Remains the Same' / the same things speak to me that spoke to me then / Except now, the scenes with Peter Grant and John Bonham are different from when I think about the dust that fell upon them.” Again, these are lyrics, not some unrehearsed opinions for the Letterman show. As the specificity unspools (see the Stuart Berman glossary to the “incomparably vast… lyrical universe” of Benji), it feels like Kozelek is achieving something rare. In his Pitchfork review of Benji, Ian Cohen writes:

Which leads to an important critical consideration: Do these songs resonate because we understand them to be true stories? We have little reason to doubt Kozelek’s authenticity, as Benji is full of proper nouns and historical facts that check out: Google some of the specificities mentioned during his eviscerating sexual inventory of ‘Dogs’ and you find that there is indeed a Tangier and Red Lobster near the Erie Canal in Akron.

Cohen’s question is a tricky one. Do these songs resonate because we understand them to be true stories? Well, yeah. But perhaps they don’t resonate as songs. With the telltale techniques of memoir, Benji signals to the listener: “You are reading this album.” Again, Cohen: “Benji trusts in the complexity… ingrained in anyone’s life story… More importantly, [Kozelek’s] storytelling has sharpened considerably… This is obviously brutal stuff. Its pacing, themes, and structure having more in common with cinema or literature than pop music.”   

And while Benji is just one of a recent slew of diaristic albums that could fit under the purview of New Sincerity[4] (music critic Mike Powell also identifies grief-laden Crow (Mount Eerie), Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens), and Skeleton Tree (Nick Cave)), it is the only one, compositionally, that aspires to full-fledged memoir. Powell, for his part, expresses his skepticism that frankness like Kozelek’s or Phil Elverum’s might all just be an indie treatment, a pretentious affect: “Indie culture tends to prize this kind of undecorated directness as a stand-in for truth, as though nobody has ever spoken clearly and lied.”

If I really calibrate my bullshit detector, I think there’s exactly one musician who passes the muster: Daniel Johnston. While critics have made (too) much of his mental health and “childlike” approach to songwriting, it seems to me that Johnston’s candor and austerity feels accidental, not constructed. Johnston has the uncanny ability to record pre-stylized tracks that are tenderly autobiographical, unequivocally suis generis. Johnston’s work, though, is prone to shapelessness, limbic redundancy—which might be a harsh thing to say of an artist whose first two albums were titled Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain. Listening to some of his minor albums may be reminiscent of swiping through a stream of selfies, struggling to notice what has changed from photo to photo. Still, one of the qualities that most excites me about Johnston as an artist is his ignominy. 

With so many musicians dabbling in the conventions of the confessional essay (and at an apparently volatile time for the form), it seems inevitable that one would finally declare their work actual “memoir.” In March of this past year, The Magnetic Fields released a commodious concept album entitled 50 Song Memoir whose fifty tracks are a chronological coursing through the fifty years of principal songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. 

For starters, here’s a track-by-track analysis of the first decade (‘66 through ‘75) of 50 Song Memoir.

*

Stephin Merritt, up to 10 years old

Merritt’s memoir begins, conventionally enough, with the particulars of his birth. Born in 1966, Stephin Merritt was “Made in America.” Because his mother “never stayed anywhere more than two years,” Merritt was relocated from Saint Thomas to Yonkers to Baden-Baden in that first year (‘66). His challenge as a memoirist is considerable in these first tracks as he must account for his first years through the haze of infantile amnesia. In ‘67, Merritt imagines (speculative-nonfiction-style) that he will be reincarnated as a cockroach. He also makes the dubious claim that he was consciously vegan as a two-year-old. He sustains the whimsy as he recalls episodes (likely relayed to him by his mother) about an unreciprocated relationship with a mischievous cat they called Dionysus (‘68).

Up until this point, the lyrics have been logically retrospective or goofily experiential; it isn’t until 1969 (appropriately enough) that Merritt cultivates cultural range. It becomes evident that this memoir, like any other, will sprout antennae into the larger world, becoming considerably transpersonal. As early as ’69, Stephin Merritt is a student of history, epistemology, cosmology, aesthetics, etc. It seems to all be spurred on by the death of Judy Garland, a gay icon whose premature death coincided with the Sexual Revolution: “So put those feather boas on / Drink too much wine / And celebrate the revolution of ’69.”[5] Though Merritt’s mother’s VW bug flounders on the road to Woodstock, he’s still the bona fide child of a flower child. The transpersonal continues in the next track (’70) where, at a concert, he—as a child, not even four years old—hears Grace Slick presumably in opposition to the American presence in Vietnam (maybe even decrying the Mỹ Lai Massacre): “They’re killing children over there.” Since it’s not a Jefferson Airplane lyric, and likely an ad hoc in-concert haranguing of Nixon, the context is a bit opaque. Whereas a paperback memoir might provide some expository traces, this song leaves us guessing.[6]    

‘71’s track smacks of classic Magnetic Fields, a violin reflecting Merritt’s every word. In “I Think I’ll Make Another World,” he is initiated in the artist’s life. “It may not start out very large,” he sings of the humble origins of his forthcoming –topia. The romantic, escapist potential of art is sidelined, though, when in ’72, Merritt is sidled with (self-diagnosed?) Asperger syndrome. An arrhythmic Wurlitzer and foggy horn is reminiscent of a grotesque merry-go-round as he asks: “Eye contact for the autodidact… / Why must we make eye contact?” By ’73, it’s apparent that Merritt’s childhood is totally void of structure. Now located in Pa’ia, Hawaii (“hippie central”), he sings longingly that he “could have gone to a real school”; instead, he hitchhikes to a place where kids chant “kahuli aku / kahuli mai” and harvests magic mushrooms. Perhaps it’s here, in the midst of the commune, where music is so ubiquitous, that Merritt begins writing his own songs. We learn that the father-figure du jour—a trumpeter with a pork pie hat—has set music to one of Merritt’s lyrics to impress his mom. Rather than validate Merritt, it incenses him: “He stole my song / Better back off, mister.” Sure, the Freudian subtext is there. But really, I sense that Merritt is being more protective of his art.

What his childhood may lack in structure it certainly delivers in its wide exposure to sundry cosmogonies (‘74). Barely out of the preoperational stage, and Merritt is prematurely face-to-face with the theoretical, hypothetical, counterfactual, and abstract (all hallmarks of the formal operational stage of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development): theism, Karmu/black Christ, flying saucers, communist revolution, fairies, ghosts, reincarnation, heavenly hosts, science. The first decade of Merritt’s life concludes with a straightforward biography of his mother (’75). His singsong approach, accompanied by the tinkling of a music box, helps reveal his mother with a nonjudgmental attitude. A former English teacher who was fired for teaching Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Merritt’s mother transitioned into the life of a proud beatnik whose ideological malleability makes her a “moonie” in Merritt’s eyes.[7] From cults to ashrams, yoga to zen reiki, Vendanta to Tibetan Buddhism, Merritt witnesses his mother in a spiritual ricochet. She is surrounded by men in togas with Santa-like beards, chanting “Bhaja govindam.” Apropos her Vedic exploration, The Magnetic Fields goad with electric sitar. Through it all, Merritt defends her honor; in case we were thinking it, he clears the air by telling us what she’s not: she’s not a madam, not a hippie, not a drug user, not a loony. It’s a compassionate, sometimes funny portrayal of a mother whose open-mindedness has been occasionally disruptive for her ten-year-old son: “My Mom’s a little flaky / believes in everything / from auras to zen reiki / except crystal healing / she draws the line at crystal healing.”

‘75 My Mama Ain’t           [song]            [lyrics]

For a full track-by-track-by-track-by-track (x50) summary, see the NPR article by Barry Walters

*


It seems unconscionable to waste time debating whether or not it’s actually a memoir. Merritt says it’s a memoir, so it is. Simple enough. In just thirty minutes (that’s just one-fifth of the way through), you learn as much about Merritt’s childhood as you do from your standard memoirist. If all the framing is veracious, it seems that Merritt has been planning his memoirs since 1977: “When I write my memoirs /Which will be of course in verse,” Merritt sings. And why verse?

Clearly, musician memoirs have a staid audience. According to an article in The New York Times by Julie Bosman, “in a squirrely market for books, the rock memoir has taken off, spurring publishers to pursue more book deals with musicians willing to tell their stories.” Many of the musicians listed in the article—Sammy Hagar, Pete Townshend, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, and Ozzy Osbourne—are baby boomers whose legacies have been cemented in the annals of rock. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010) did the unthinkable by winning the National Book Award. Despite all the success of popular rock memoirs, nobody at Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, or Hachette expects the writing to be any good. By and large, these are memoirs written for posterity, not for the sake of literature.

Tom Carlson of TNYT acknowledges Smith’s literary chops in his review of Just Kids:  “What’s sure to make her account a cornucopia for cultural historians, however, is the atmosphere, personalities and mores of the time are so astutely observed.” Still, though, Carlson is suggesting Smith’s account will eventually relegate her to firsthand observer, and not as commentator herself. If the success of Just Kids is any indication, this is the most a musician can hope for her memoir. Recently, (Steven) Morrissey (a late Baby Boomer) released Autobiography for which G.P. Putnam’s Sons paid a handsome advance. John Williams (again, of the Times) opens his review by quoting Vladimir’s barb from Waiting for Godot: “No one ever suffers but you.” Considering Morrissey’s baritone talents in the studio, Autobiography is a tragically run-of-the-mill memoir. Whereas Williams mildly reproaches Morrissey for spending nearly as much time describing his legal battles with The Smiths' drummer as he devotes to his career with the Smiths itself, the book is far from a tour de force. To me, it’s a fair indication of Ecco publisher Dan Halpern’s concern that the rock memoir category is getting overcrowded: “In publishing, if something works, people keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. I have a feeling we’re getting close to that. I think the reading public is going to get a little worn out.”

With 50 Song Memoir, Stephin Merritt circumvents that overcrowding by sticking with what he knows best. Forget the fickle reading public. The listening public remains ever-eager to tune in to the latest from an indie juggernaut. If it’s a veritable twofer, a towering concept album and a memoir, then all the better. It’s far from a signal of Merritt’s complacency. In fact, this album is as demanding on the listener as it is on its performers. In an interview with VICE, Merritt compares it to a variety show. There are 50 instruments in play on the album—with seven instruments per song, and every instrument played just seven times. (If you’re doing the math, this leaves one track, “The Day I Finally…”—a harrowing track in which Merritt plays the one-man band to commemorate the onset of his depression.) These OuLiPo-like constraints endow the memoir with tones and textures that evolve in tandem with the musical landscape from 1966 to 2015.

With each disc spanning a decade of Merritt’s life, there are undeniable pivots in the evolution of pop music that coincide with important biographical junctures—from his queerness to his depression to his nascent status as indie darling. Some instruments are so important to his artistic career that he dedicates whole songs to them—as if the emergence of the synthesizer is a co-manifestation of Merritt himself. The lyrics to “How to Play the Synthesizer,” by the way, are not just homage (in the vein of Daft Punk’s docutrack on Giorgio Moroder, progenitor of EDM) but process analysis, a metacognitive essay/manual studded with imperatives:

Take a single oscillator / Producing a drone
Send it to the wave shaper / Altering the tone
This can be a triangle / Sawtooth or a square
Modulate the pulse width / Nobody will care
Now go to the filter bank / Low, high, band or notch
Fiddle with the cutoff point / Pour yourself a Scotch
Modern filters oscillate / All by themselves
It sounds like you're torturing / Little metal elves
Nextly, shape the envelope / AKA ADSR
Attack, decay, sustain, release / Which means how loud you are
One millisecond to the next / Whether you pluck or lurch
Or ooze like an organist / In a Venusian church

Merritt weathers disco (check out the earworm, “‘76: Hustle ‘76”), rock n’ roll (“‘79: Rock n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life”), New Romanticism/new wave/synth pop (“‘89: London By Jetpack”), and run-ins with the avant garde (“‘89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo””). These eras, when combined with nightclub tracks about Danceteria and the West Village’s The Pyramid tell the composite story of Merritt’s musical education. By the last two discs, Merritt is less a consumer of this culture as he is a confident contributor to it. In “‘02: Be True to Your Bar,” Merritt is simply scrawling songs on napkins at his favorite gay bar in Manhattan.


*


Merritt has always been an enumerator. While 50 Song Memoir is unlikely to supersede the beloved cult compilation, 69 Love Songs, there is more at stake in this concept. That’s because, frankly, there’s more Merritt. In a Rolling Stone article (that now seems redundant), Merritt mined his previous 25 albums, struggling to find even 15 songs that had anything to do with him. “There were several albums that had no songs that had anything to do with me,” he said. He goes on to posit that his reticence is due to the fact that:

gay songwriters in general write character songs because they’re not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives. Taylor Swift expects that teenage girls will identify with her songs, and teenage girls are by far the largest market for selling records and that’s fine. But I’m not in a position to decide that only gay men are going to be my market.

In his Slate review of 50 Song Memoir, Ron Carlson writes, “Not so long ago, to sing about queerness would have been confessional in the literal sense of admitting a crime.” Unwilling to take Merritt’s “anti-social leanings” at face value, Carlson connects the artist’s reserve to “the lineage of concealment and code (drag, camp, polari) throughout queer history.”

More generally, it probably matters that Merritt is a Baby Buster (Gen-X’er). Unlike would-be memoirist Steven Tyler, Merritt belongs to a generation of auteur songwriters who, as Carlson points out, “backed far away from explicit confession.” Preferring band names to given names, Carlson writes that these musicians elect to camouflage their biographies:

Like Merritt, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats for years loudly disavowed the biographical fallacy—the presumption that writers and singers must be soulfully chronicling their own lives.

It should come as no surprise then that days after 50 Song Memoir came out, Darnielle released his book of fiction, Universal Harvester. Even so:

… as the confessional 1970s receded safely far away, [even] Darnielle came around to explicit memoir.


*


As far as memoirs go, 50 Song Memoir benefits from the fact of its 50 songs; it keeps things moving along. With only one song reaching the four-minute mark (“‘77: Life Ain’t All That Bad”), most songs hover at 180 seconds. Because Merritt’s life is presented in these metered episodes, the memoir doesn’t suffer from the sludgy pitfalls of, say, a 50-page chronicle of a grudge between former bandmates (ahem, Morrissey).

As I look at the album art, an Edward-Hopper-looking painting[1] of Merritt at a café (think Nighthawks or Automat), I can’t help but wonder about persona. By sitting in the shadows, concealing a painful expression from the other patrons, the figure becomes accidentally foregrounded for the viewer. “If there are any lingering questions about how much of the man is crafted persona,” Williams writes in his review of Morrissey’s Autobiography, “this book should dispel them. Morrissey is Morrissey to the marrow.” I'd argue that this self-amplification is even truer in 50 Song Memoir.

What makes the album so endearing is that Merritt is willing to “go back” to the subjectivities du an—of ’66, ’76, ’86, ’96, ’06, and ’15—and rummage around. In the first ten tracks (analyzed above), Merritt, like James Joyce’s Dedalus-as-Baby Tuckoo, composes with intentional nursery-rhyme juvenilia. By 2001’s post-9/11 ode to Manhattan, Merritt has matured considerably, perhaps even “[learning] in [his] own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what is feels… [encountering] for the millionth time the reality of experience…” He doesn’t annotate from a distance nor does he handle the material of his life with mawkish sentimentality. Like Smith, who is “no nostalgist about her formative years,” Merritt curates a tender presentation of his life; unlike Smith, though, who has been in the public eye (often through the camera lens of her memoir’s co-star, Mapplethorpe) for decades, Merritt emerges from plain sight. It is not a ‘morality’ album (Cohen’s phrase), but, per the title of Carlson’s review of the album, Merritt’s coming out “—as Human.”

After 2.5 hours of the same bass-baritone, several critics have addressed their fatigue with Merritt’s voice. Listeners accustomed to the 40-minute album, then, will need to acclimate to the memoir’s agenda. Here, in 50 Song Memoir, is a sustained voice whose tonal and narrative consistency is meritorious, not monotonous. What makes the memoir innovative is that it is the first of its kind—published on disc, and energized by timbre.





[1] To entirely dismiss Tolentino’s provocative article would be flippant; there is an excellent gendered analysis about the rise and fall of the first-person as native to platforms like Jezebel, Slate, xoJane, and Buzzfeed.

[2] From Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox”: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables / and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first / a little pesticide can’t hurt / never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket / but they’re all pumped up with shit / A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples.”

[3] From Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rain": "I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses and back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus… I still miss being a senior and performing at all those open mic events. High school, eyes closed, seeing arenas. And I still get jealous of Vic. And Vic still get jealous of me… And I’m still choosing classmates that wouldn’t fuck. Mom still thinks I should go back to school. And Justin still think I’m good enough. And Mama Jan still don’t take her meds."
 
[4] Predicted by David Foster Wallace in his essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” proponents of New Sincerity (also known as post-postmodernism or performatism) will be “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.”

[5] Merritt demonstrates his familiarity with the memoir genre as he alludes to Garland’s posthumous exposé of the film industry—in which she sought to tell her life story while giving Hollywood an ass-kicking comeuppance. As Garland put it, “I’d like to expose a lot of people who deserve it.”

[6] Sometimes the generous liner notes provide much-needed transparency. It’s hard to tell if they’re meant to supplement the memoir, or be a substitute for it.

[7] In The Concise New Partridge Dictions of Slang and Unconventional English (eds. Dalzell and Victor), a moonie is defined as “any blind, unthinking, unquestioning follower of a philosophy or person. An extension of the early 1970s labeling of followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.”


______



Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage. His prose has been published in Conjunctions, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, teaches genres at Northern Arizona University, and is reviews editor of DIAGRAM. He writes about islands and black-footed ferrets. [Twitter]