What Really Happened? Making Life Into Literature

by Alisa Wolf

I should be working on my memoir today. There’s no reason I can’t pick up where I left off yesterday, with my teenage self, in the woods, at night. The toes of a hiking boot—and then the toes of the other boot—are lit in the beam of a flashlight, as I walk from the staff cabin at the wilderness camp to the bathrooms. That walk happened, but the boot in the beam of the flashlight—as probable as it is—is not, strictly speaking, remembered. I made that part up. Chances are I stumbled through the woods thinking thoughts that had nothing to do with whatever my feet were up to.

Then why did I write it that way, and why do I think it’s important to keep it? The short answer to both questions is: it serves a literary purpose. As I sat with the scene yesterday, the story needed slowing down, to be grounded. I can’t fully explain what happens when I’m writing and I follow an impulse that feels right. I don’t always understand why a story makes its demands, but when it does, I’ve learned to go with it.

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor fiction. I’m not making flagrant claims, like Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments did, in his memoir about a Polish, Jewish boy who survives a Nazi death camp. It turned out he isn’t Jewish, or even Polish, let alone a Holocaust survivor. I was, without a doubt, the girl in the woods, taking a break from the staff cabin and its roaring fire, the cigarettes and marijuana, and a jug of wine being passed around. No one is going to argue about whether I noticed that my flashlight lit up the toe of my boot. Yet something still bothers me. I’m feeling nervous about the liberty I’ve taken with “what really happened.”

Is it dishonest to tinker, in however a minor way, with the stuff of my life? I recreate conversations I can’t possibly remember verbatim, change names, and rely on memories I’ve gone over and over again, surely distorting them in the process. On the other hand, it’s no use worrying about how people will receive a book that may never see print. But what I’m more afraid of than being caught out is that the bit of wisdom I’m trying to uncover is actually self-deception.

Vivian Gornick, author of the mother-daughter memoir, Fierce Attachments, and the well-loved memoir-writing book, The Situation and the Story, sees deviations from what actually happened as memoirists’ prerogative. “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters,” she wrote in an essay, defending her use of composite characters. She cites memoirs acknowledged to be masterpieces by authors as diverse as Edmund Gosse, who recounted conversations that supposedly took place when he was eight years old, to George Orwell, who was denounced for inaccuracies in his account of his school days in “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

In Gornick’s view, the problem is not with the memoirists but with readers’ expectations. “Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism.” She doesn’t go so far as to condone memoirists like Wilkomirski, who invent pasts they never had. She makes a distinction between inventing a narrative out of whole cloth, as Wilkomirski did, and composing, which is what she did when working with, as she says, “a narrative drawn entirely from the materials of my own experience.”

Other memoirists, too, are unapologetic about shaping narratives out of the raw materials of their lives. David Sedaris was trashed in The New Republic for making stuff up about ten years ago, around the time James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair were being publicly shamed for doing what appeared, to his critics, to be the same thing. Did the fact that he survived where the others fell have to do with being a humor writer, which makes us more forgiving? Or was it because his exaggerations were more along the lines of what Gornick calls “composing” from experience versus inventing a past that wasn’t what really happened?

There’s that phrase again, “what really happened,” the idea that keeps stopping me when I’m feeling most connected to my work. I’m haunted by Margo Jefferson, who in her memoir, Negroland, writes: “I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”

Am I doing that?

How can I not? My temperament, ego, and self-image are all part of the story. And my life is not a story until I find what the story is. Like Hansel and Gretel, I wander in the woods, pausing to shine a light on my childhood and adolescence while taking stock of the world around me and my place in it, then and now.

To avoid confusion, I could call what I’m writing “realish,” as Sedaris does, or “based on a true story,” as they say in the movies. Or I could continue to keep Vivian Gornick nearby and remind myself of what a memoirist owes the reader, which, as she writes, “is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

I don’t know why I’m a memoirist and not a fiction writer—I often wish it were otherwise. But that’s the way it is. If I want whatever bit of truth I have achieved in my work to reach a reader, I have to be faithful to the story I’m telling. Ironically, the demands of literature—for drama, narrative drive, and conflict—are what stop me from being wholly self-serving in the way Jefferson derides. Self-pity makes for a boring read.

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AlisaWolf_MayAlisa Wolf’s work has appeared in AGNI Online, The Billfold, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

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Reflections on Beauty and Writing: Two Questions with Chad Davidson

Bart Kuipers for AGNI: I liked the way you reflect on beauty in your piece “Mutatis Mutandis” (AGNI 86), and especially the idea that imperfection and transience are key elements in appreciating it—as you quote Stevens, “Death is the mother of all beauty.” Reading your poem “Cockroaches” made me wonder: How do these notions of beauty influence your poetry? Are you aware of them when you write?

The essay on Spoleto started with a rather simple anecdote. As the piece makes clear, I run a study abroad program in Italy for my university. Each year, students are simply stunned by the place, and will almost inevitably say to nobody in particular (kind of to themselves or to the air itself), “This is so beautiful.” Writers constantly want to challenge the easy adjective, though, and hunt instead for linguistic precision. What precisely is beautiful about Spoleto? Could I inventory it, pay homage to that impulse we have (especially we Americans) to call Italy beautiful? Beauty can be a complex synthesis. It can also be quite simple. The essay tries to shed light on some of the ways I tried to answer that question: what specifically about Spoleto (and about Italy more generally) is beautiful?

As for how that relates to or influences my poetry, I am sure it does. Poetry (any imaginative writing, really) is concerned with aesthetics, even (and perhaps especially) when the object under inspection is not often categorized as beautiful. I suppose the Cockroach poem you reference and this Spoleto essay attempt to answer the same question but have arrived there from opposing poles.

BK/AGNI: You ask the question “Where doesn’t history transform a place, yes, but also warp the air around it, the way a desert highway trembles in heat?” and make the observation that “Time, […] forms a storage place just large enough for nostalgia.” I’m wondering: Do you feel history transforms the perception of a poem over time in that sense?

Most definitely. My appreciation of certain poems changes, expands (in some cases contracts) over time, just as my appreciation of any artwork or city or food will change. The specific issue in the part of the essay you cite, however, is how time itself provides for our nostalgia. History writ large—and not that particular building or monument or window box of geraniums—is often what we desire most of Italy (even if we are not conscious of it). The question, I think, is this: when we see the old cobbler, off a cobblestoned street of a medieval city center, do we see the cobbler or just a complex we might identify as “old-world charm”? I was interested in that noise, that disturbance, that double vision.

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AGNI CDChad Davidson’s most recent collection of poems is From the Fire Hills (Southern Illinois UP, 2014). Recent essays and poems appear or are forthcoming in Five Points, Gettysburg Review, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, and others. He serves as professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta and co-directs Convivio, a summer writing conference in Postignano, Italy. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

AGNI bk.pngBart Kuipers writes short stories and screenplays in Dutch and English. He graduated from the Amsterdam Film Academy and since then published short stories in Dutch magazines and Writer’s Digest. In addition to being an intern at AGNI, he’s currently a student in the creative writing MFA program at Boston University on a Fulbright scholarship.

Van Winckel, Chang, and Mills: New Work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—excerpts of an essay by Nance Van Winckel, two poems by Victoria Chang, and fiction by Bronwyn Mills. Check it all out!

 

AGNI NVW“From hour to hour I’d long first for more of Me-In-Charge, then for less, then please, none. This lasted weeks. I’d stand in the purply dark—that swirling admixture of all colors—until the stars of bulbs in other houses flickered on.”

 

from the essay “Sister Zero” by Nance Van Winckel

 

AGNI VC“Control—died on August 3, 2015, along with my mother. Suddenly I was no longer in the middle of the earth. Suddenly I could change the angle of the liquid pen so that the rocket went the other way.”

from the poem “Obit” by Victoria Chang

 

AGNI BM“One night in Lisboa, Ö. went into a fado bar. He went in late, to take shelter from cold, damp weather. The place was darker than the grave; and inside sitting at a table, he saw an older man eating a lovely fish soup. The music was rising to a wail. The singer was only practicing, so the music would stop now and then, unexpectedly, in the midst of an anguished cry. Wanting to strike up a conversation, Ö. sat down next to the old man.”

from the story “The Story of Ö” by Bronwyn Mills

 

 

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Abildskov, Berry, and Tandon: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—an essay by Marilyn Abildskov, two poems by Ciaran Berry, and two poems by Jason Tandon. Check it all out!

Marilyn-Abildskov“When you were a Mormon girl, your future was mapped. You knew that one day you would live in a two-story brick house, that the house might be on Emerson Avenue or Logan Avenue but wherever it was, there would be a vegetable garden in the backyard, a soft-spoken priesthood-holding husband inside, ginger-haired children you drove to swimming practice and piano lessons and skiing trips on the same slopes where you learned to ski so many years before. In addition, you would probably have a cabin in the mountains, one with a lofty fireplace in a family room spacious enough for everyone to stretch out and play Monopoly. And on Sundays? You would all sit together on one of the front pews, sharing hymnbooks, the older kids holding the younger ones in their laps.

“And when you’re not a Mormon girl?”

from the essay “And Who Can Say It Will Not?” by Marilyn Abildskov

 

Ciaran-Berry“you yelled out ‘right leg’ and I answered ‘green.’
We both waited for the other to topple onto an elbow or a knee

as the updraft passed through Jonesboro and Pinckneyville,
gathering to its core a rowboat, a rocking chair, a woman on a bicycle.”

from the poem “Twister” by Ciaran Berry

 

Jason-Tandon“Rolling and
unrolling the scroll

I don’t know
which
to prefer.”

from the poem “Having Forgotten to Put out Fresh Towels, I Run Naked and Wet to the Bedroom” by Jason Tandon

 

 

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Fear, Love, or Both: A Question with Megan Harlan

AGNI: Your essay “Spider Season” (AGNI 85) brings so many wide-ranging things together, all connected to the central element of spiders: danger, superstition, beauty, home, cultural differences, childhood, and parenthood. How did you know, in writing, which connections you wanted to include, and which (if any) you would ultimately decide to exclude?

Harlan: “Spider Season” began when I noticed, one Fall day, just how many spiders were living on my front porch, because I refused to sweep them away, despite my longstanding arachnophobia. Spiders, as I say in the essay, comprise my one true phobia, yet you’d never guess it to see me near a spider now. How had this happened? Had I actually matured out of my fear? Not exactly: I’d instead developed a deep, if admittedly silly superstition surrounding them. My second awareness: This superstition had cropped up when I became a parent—which also coincided with my settling into the first real home in my life. I’d moved around almost constantly growing up, and “home” had always been a tricky, mysterious subject for me. Yet now I had one—and it was often crawling with spiders.

I started reading about spiders, and the more I learned and remembered about them, the more moved I was by their architectural prowess, their relentless and complex home-building. And that led me to consider my own relationship with the family home, with the psychological resonances of architecture. Though I wasn’t sure where I was headed, I wanted to write the essay as a patterning of ideas, memories, and emotions about spiders, using the simple structure of eight sections to both connote my subject and give me the freedom to wander within it.

It’s very true that—at the risk of confusing creatures and metaphors—this was magpie sort of writing: I kept noticing shiny things off in the distance and bringing them back to the nest. I filled the essay with all the spidery associations that occurred to me—whether pulled from mythologies, religions, the natural world, or aesthetics. And there were so many spider-related incidents involving childhood—my own and my son’s.

But each element had to pass what I’ll call the fear/love test: Did it matter enough to me to strike fear, inspire love, or—best of all—both? This was a very helpful measure in culling my material. I jettisoned almost immediately, for example, the time a spider dropped into my eyelashes while I was watching a movie at a theater: While an icky, startling, and somewhat comical experience (at least, I’m imagining, from the other movie-goers’ perspectives), it didn’t touch on much else.

This measure no doubt explains why family became a central subject in the piece. Parenthood can trip off spontaneous memories of our own childhoods, revealing a funny, everyday metaphysics, the time travel involved in our experience of raising children, as former children ourselves. I often find myself thinking, “When I was his age…”—while also trying to spare my son too many of these musings. But these ideas can be so rich to explore, and nowhere better—at least for me—than in the essay. It’s a form elastic enough to depict and structure associative thinking, the intuitions that give shape to our ideas.

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Megan Harlan photoMegan Harlan grew up on four continents and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, Catamaran, The Common, American Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as a writer and editor. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Villoro/Hernandez, Brody, and Melnicove: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández), an essay by Leslie Brody, and a poem by Mark Melnicove. Check it all out!

AGNI Hernandez“One afternoon, my father got in his Studebaker, and we never heard from him again. The last and defining fact tying these photos to my father is the absence of pictures afterward.”
from the story “Bad Photographer” by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández)

 

AGNI Brody“I’d never been manhandled before. There’d been no physical violence in my childhood. When I was nineteen, a policeman had clobbered me in the head at an anti-Vietnam War protest. Then, there’d been blood and stitches, and I’d displayed my scar proudly. Nothing in my life had prepared me for being flung across a room.”
from the essay Daisies: An Observation” by Leslie Brody

 

AGNI Melnicove“Just when all feels lost,

the fire department volunteers show up in shiny,
red corvettes, gather in a circle around
the crumbling frame of the house, and piss

on the charcoal timbers”

from the poem “Where I Came From” by Mark Melnicove

 

 

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The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

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lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.