Monday, October 28, 2013

The Barking Cat: Converting An Essay Collection into a Memoir

I began working on the material for my memoir, A Door in the Ocean, many years ago, way back in the year 2000. I was deep into the stories that would one day turn into my first fiction collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, and back then I believed I was a dyed-in-the-wool fiction writer. I never considered that I had a life worth writing about, and like a lot of fiction writers, I’d been raised on the idea that nonfiction wasn’t the stuff of literature. There’s a long tradition of such prejudice. Ned Stuckey-French, for example, says, “[Essays] continue to be associated in the minds of many readers with fish-wrap journalism. They are seen as a product of memory and reporting rather than imagination and intellect.”[i] And when it came to memoir—the personal essay’s slutty cousin—the criticism was even fiercer. In a 1994 essay published in Harper’s magazine, William Gass had whined, “Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, ‘I was born . . . I was born . . . I was born’? ‘I pooped in my pants, I was betrayed, I made straight A's.’”[ii]  

It’s hard to get more damning than that.

In the summer of 2000, I began to assemble materials for a class on Rhetoric and Writing a the University of Utah. The class would focus on contemporary Utah criminals. I’d lived in Salt Lake City for about a year by that point, and like a lot of people I saw Utah as overwhelmingly homogenous and excessively wholesome—an image so many of my students were invested in upholding. So I wanted to mix things up and try to show the students that Utah’s history wasn’t so squeaky clean. I knew Ted Bundy had spent time in Salt Lake City, for example. I also knew about Gary Gilmore – who’d murdered two young men in Provo in the 1970s and was the first person sentenced to death in the United States after a decade-long moratorium on capital punishment – from Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song. As I began searching for articles and documents, I came across an essay by Mikal Gilmore, Gary’s younger brother. (It’s titled, “Family Album,” and was first printed in Rolling Stone and then in Granta, and later expanded into the memoir, Shot in the Heart, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994.)

As I read Mikal Gilmore’s account of his brother’s life, crime, and execution, I felt a strange transformation taking place. The revelations I wanted to deliver to my students I was experiencing for myself. But the revelation wasn’t about Utah so much as it was about the power of the personal essay. I’d never read a story that struck so close to the bone, or that felt so urgent. I gasped at the final scene, then immediately turned back to the beginning and read the essay straight through again. Every now and then, as readers, we stumble across a text that absolutely changes our lives. In many cases, it’s been in front of us the entire time. Mikal Gilmore’s “Family Album” was that text for me.

The essay appealed to me so profoundly, I think, because it gave me a vocabulary for understanding my own relationship to murder. When I was fifteen years old, a kid in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, my closest friend was shot and killed in a home invasion, along with his father and older brother. It was a bizarre and incomprehensible crime that has never been solved, even 21 years later. I’d talked to my friend on the phone just twenty minutes before he died; his mother and younger sister were sitting in their car, in my driveway, when the gunmen arrived. I’d spent the years following the murders not exactly trying to forget them, but definitely trying to convince myself that they no longer affected me, that I was, in the jargon of pop-psychology, “over it.” Sudden, unforeseen disasters had crept into my stories for years, but before that day I’d never considered the possibility that I might have something personal to say about murder. But now I felt a story taking shape: what was once a knotted jumble of odd emotions and surreal memories was metamorphosing into language, and into a communicable order. So I began writing the first draft of my first personal essay, which survives today—in a very different form—as the first chapter of A Door in the Ocean. 

My essay about the murders imitated Gilmore’s voice and writing style. It was a personal account with a ruminating voice, part story and part cultural meditation. Digressions, aphorisms, and ruminations are, of course, hallmarks of the personal essay. Essays themselves are, by nature, tentative endeavors: investigations freed from the obligation of making firm moral pronouncements. They are permitted to wander, to loaf, to puzzle over great questions but to ultimately refrain from having to answer them. The preponderance of prepositions—“On” and “Of”—found in the titles of so many famous essays, including several by living writers such as Joan Didion and Phillip Lopate reinforce this notion of the essay’s tentativeness. Opinions on this, thoughts of that. But tentativeness also has its uses, and as Mikal Gilmore shows, the power to haunt. And, for me, a narrative form that resisted conclusions was perfect for a story about an unsolved murder. 

Over the next decade, I made headway on my story collection and I continued to write personal essays, the vast majority of which maintained the same pseudo-academic stance as my first. Like the essays I read, my essays were largely organized around themes. I mused, for example, on the connections between my mother’s recurring battles with retinal detachments and her divorce from my father, on hunger and poverty, on my lifelong love affair with swimming, on anxiety and madness and my wife’s job as a hospital social worker. Each essay was rooted in experience, and therefore grounded in time and space, but because each essay was discreet and self-contained, I believed I was freed from connecting one to another. I told friends I was writing an essay collection—a book of nonfiction similar in structure to a story collection. Thematically overlapping but ultimately kaleidoscopic, with wide gaps of unaccounted for time between one narrative and another. I’d titled the collection Rough Water, and in my mind, the book’s structure was like a chain of lakes, the small bodies of waters connecting one to another but the coastline left jagged and unmapped.

And I did my best to use the gaps in the story to my advantage, specifically to evade and deflect my most invasive and risky material. I was afraid, for example, to openly tell the story of how I’d been pulled in by my stepmother’s evangelical Christianity in the months following the murders. Instead I attempted to slyly reveal myself as an erstwhile evangelical within an essay about proselytizing on college campuses. It was an essay that explored what I originally termed “the missionary impulse”—which in hindsight sounds a lot more sexual than I ever intended. I recognized that the story had enough heat to warrant my telling it, but I was nevertheless intent on tiptoeing gingerly around the scenes that made me uncomfortable.

When The End of the Straight and Narrow appeared in print in 2008, I had about two-thirds of the essay collection complete, and some of the essays were starting to get some attention. The title essay, “Rough Water,” made it into The Best American Sports Writing anthology, which drew the eye of several agents. I signed on with one of them who promptly told me the book would have a better chance at finding a publisher if I could nudge it in the direction of memoir. “You know,” she said, “more story, less thinking.” But she also said the book was close to being finished and that if I could just put the pieces into chronological order, we’d be good to go.

About half the stories in The End of the Straight and Narrow are linked, and after the book appeared a number of people suggested they could have been a novel. So, I’d come to believe that the relationship between essays and memoirs was analogous to the relationship between short stories and novels. If novels were merely a bunch of short stories with a recurring cast of characters, memoirs were merely a bunch of shorter essays in chronological order. As long as I started the book with the essay that occurred first in time and was a little older in the next, all would be well. It sounded so easy.“ It shouldn’t take you very long,” my agent said. Eager to see the book finished and into print, I believed her.

When I went back to rearrange the book into something more memoir-like, I made an important—and devastating—discovery. Essays are not simply short memoirs. If the essay tentatively poses partial opinions, the memoir works to draw more definite conclusions. The experiences and scenes included in a memoir are there because they point to a moral, an enlightened awareness, a sense of “what it all means.” The memoir is the antithesis of tentative. Dante scholar John Freccero provides what is perhaps the most elegantly succinct definition of a memoir I know: “I am I, but I was not always so.” An autobiography, Freccero says, is “the story of how the self that was becomes the self that is.”

You can practically hear the hinge at the center of the phrase, “I am I, but I was not always so”—the way it turns on the word “but.” Thus conversion is the master trope of memoir—an account of the author’s life leading up to a cataclysmic transformation, and the extenuating consequences of having made the change. And conversion doesn’t necessarily mean religion. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life turns on his becoming the stepson of an abusive drunkard; Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum turns on the author’s awareness that he’s gay. Show me a memoir and I’ll show you a conversion story.

It’s ironic that I would resist such a structure, given the very literal conversions going on inside my book. But for a long time I did resist it. I’d written the story of the murders, as well as all the essays in the book, as individual pieces separate from one another. It seemed artificial to force connections between the different narratives, and I didn’t like the idea of opening my life so completely to public scrutiny. On the other hand, the more I worked at converting the book from an essay collection to a memoir, the more I saw that it had exhibited memoir tendencies all along. My chronology had gaps, but it was nevertheless recognizable. The themes I once believed were separate and varied were actually points in a larger constellation, all orbiting around the original trauma of the murders and my later attempt to “solve” the crime by adhering to my stepmother’s eccentric and radical faith. A story was there; I’d just been afraid to tell it.

I’d tried for years to contain to the story of murders solely within the first essay, just as I tried to contain my weird religious history within a meditation on American culture. It became apparent that if was going to pull off the book, I was going to have to narrate the harder truths about myself. The struggle was both formal and personal, for I had to align seemingly unrelated scenes into a larger, coherent trajectory and I had to risk looking like a freak. I pulled the book back to its studs and started over from the beginning, this time removing the more abstract meditations and including all the scenes and experiences that I’d once avoided.
I make sure I'm clear: I thought I had a finished book. I had an agent. An editor had liked a lot of it before he decided to decline the manuscript. And I started over from the beginning and wrote it all over again.

The revision was painstaking and difficult: cutting away the essayistic observations felt like cutting out a piece of my heart. Replacing them with visceral scenes from my private life felt like taking off my clothes in public. And breaking apart a finished essay and scattering the pieces across a larger canvas was simply a trial. I often felt, as I told friends, like I was trying to turn a cat into a dog. If I somehow managed to pull it off, it'd be a miracle. If not, I'd end up with a cat that barked, sort of. 

In time, the memoir found its way, and in an ironic reversal, it was during the revision process that I finally realized, in a way I’d never been able to admit in the past, that the murders had never stopped intriguing and terrifying me, and that the utter dearth of answers in the wake of the crime had informed my life ever since. The process of converting the book from an essay collection to a memoir had revealed me to myself. Forcing my story into a coherent trajectory had shown me that my trajectory as a human being was actually coherent. In a final stroke, this newfound coherence even renamed the book itself. The image of a door in the ocean—which I use in the second chapter as a metaphor for my desire to escape the legacy of the murders—started to recur and echo throughout later chapters. I was afraid to change the title until the day I blithely mentioned it to my editor. He said, “Oh my God, that’s it!”

Having written the book first as an essay collection and then as a memoir, I came to understand that though the essay and memoir are antithetical forms, they are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they maintain a tension, a dual gravitational pull. One of my favorite aspects of nonfiction—be it essay or memoir—is its ability to move between personal narrative and philosophical meditation, to show as well as to tell. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, for example, explicitly moves between scene and exposition, as does Shot in the Heart, Mikal Gilmore’s memoir about his brother. Both books might be seen as essays disguised as memoirs. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s possible to read Philip Lopate’s essay collection, A Portrait of My Body, as a kind of fractured memoir. Over the course of the book, Lopate meanders his way toward family life, slowly saying goodbye to bachelorhood, to traveling alone, to bad affairs, to going to the movies, to walking around Greenwich Village, and until, at the end, he marries and soon thereafter welcomes the birth of his daughter. My work as a nonfiction writer resides at the fault line of that tension, and A Door in the Ocean, though very much a memoir, retains many of its original essayistic impulses. Some of the meditations live on as micro-observations appended to scenes, others as deliberate departures from the story’s action, moments when the camera pans out to allow the narrator to muse, to think, and to wonder.   


David McGlynn is the author of the memoir A Door in the Ocean, which won the Kenneth Kingery / August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers and was reviewed on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His story collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, appeared  in 2008 and won the Utah Book Award for fiction. His other work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Best American Sports Writing, Men's Health, Swimmer, The Morning News, and in numerous literary journals. He teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. 

[i] Ned Stuckey-French, The American Essay in the American Century, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

[ii] William H. Gass, “The Art of Self: Autobiography in an Age of Narcissism,” Harper’s, May 1994, 43-52. 

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