Bret Lott

February 17, 2016

Bret Lott author photo by Luke Rutan

Broken for Art’s Sake: On Exploding the Linear Memoir

(Author’s note: As will become embarrassingly apparent, this is the text of a talk given at the 2012 NonfictionNow conference in Melbourne, Australia, in a session titled “Rethinking Memoir: Contemporary Approaches.”)

Three or four years ago, there slowly and suddenly percolated into my classrooms a phrase that struck me for its puzzlingly honest sound.

“I’m not gonna lie,” I started hearing from my students, and then, suddenly, everywhere, always followed by a bit of cheeky opinion by the speaker, or a confession regarding wrong impressions, or something just plain embarrassing to say. Of course it’s only the next generation’s turn on the old phrase, “To be perfectly honest,” or, “To tell you the truth,” a phrase that, every time I hear it, makes me want to ask the speaker, So you would have lied to me otherwise?

So, just to clear the air here at our gala congress to talk about telling the truth, let me say this: I’m not gonna lie. I’m here because I wanted to go to Australia.

Would you have had me lie to you otherwise?

But rest assured, the pretext for my speaking to you, this notion of the broken narrative, the nonlinear memoir, is very, very close to my heart, my use of it borne out of a sincere desire—a sincere desperation—just to find out what it is I mean when I write.

But here’s what I really want to say, what I’m really not gonna lie about: Despite the précis printed in the program describing me as an author who has “exploded the conventional narrative container of memoir,” I myself haven’t been party to any “exploding” beyond simply trying to find what the one true path toward what I am writing is and can only be displayed. This may mean that, by accident or folly or dint of inability otherwise, I have indeed exploded something, but only in the same way one “explodes” the gimmickry of metaphor by finding just the right one, or the way one “explodes” the myth of true love by falling smack into it.

Still, the breakdown of the narrative form in nonfiction is a very real phenomenon. But it has always been real for all of us. That is, there is no new thing under the sun.

Classical Greek has a tense called the historical present, consisting of a break in the narrative from the past tense into a momentary present right there in the middle of a sentence, the move meant to heighten or make vivid the exchange at hand. Vestiges of this tense can be seen in the way we tell stories now, an example of which might be, “Last night I was at a bar with a friend when Robin Hemley walks in and says to me, ‘Bret, would you explode a narrative form for me?’” Admittedly, the detonation of the narrative in this sense is minor, that movement within a sentence from past into present perhaps more a verb-tremor than any real earthquake. But it reveals how deeply the need for a break has been felt, and for how long: the desire to shake things up narratively has been rooted so firmly in the storytelling art that the entire fabric of Classical Greek has accommodated that need. You don’t get any more deeply rooted in narrative than in its tense.

Another example of a totally accepted explosion of the narrative form lies in a literary construct as simple and as ubiquitous as the flashback. I tell students in my writing classes that, though flashbacks are fine to use, the fact remains that if any of us were actually to experience such a break in the present narrative we were living—were any of us to lose ourselves so fully in a scene from our past that we actually relived verbatim dialogue, body language, setting, and action—we would in fact be exhibiting every symptom of psychosis the textbooks allow; immediate hospitalization and the administration of a good many drugs would be in order. And yet, whether in fiction or nonfiction, the flashback abides, so much so that its explosion warrants nary a glance.

But my purpose in being here—besides visiting beautiful Australia—isn’t to delineate the no there there to the topic of this session. Rather, it is to try and express, through the sharing of my own experiences lighting the fuses to the explosions I’ve made, what it may mean to write outside the accepted forms of linear narrative.

It all started a long time ago.

My first narrative transgression has its roots way back in 1989, when my younger son, Jacob—he was four years old then—and I were out in the snow the day before Christmas Eve, me pulling him on an inner tube around the neighborhood. We both were freezing cold, but the novelty of snow in South Carolina—I live in Charleston—had been so huge that a stroll out in the darkening afternoon, the sky a perfect blue above us, seemed a hazard worth risking.

For a long while, I tried to write a short story about that event, this because fiction was my mode of being; fiction was my tao, my way. I’d published two novels and a story collection by then and was hard at work on the next novel. But turning this fact of an event into fiction never worked. And when I say I tried to write it as fiction for a long time, I mean years. It wasn’t until, finally, sometime in 1995, that I figured out what was the problem: there was something so intrinsically true about what I was trying to fabricate into fiction that lying about the moment—that blue sky, that cold, that choice to keep walking—was dishonoring that moment itself.

This was an essay, the event had been telling me all along. This was true, and not a lie.

Left to me then was to tell the true story. But there was none—only a moment. Yet still that moment nagged me, and nagged me, until one day I realized that it was the momentary nature of the moment that was its beauty, and I saw that perhaps all I could do to make this work would be to line up a series of these moments—snapshots out of my son’s life thus far —to see what happened. Which is what I then did, and what it became: a series of moments, in no particular order, that bounced around in time but that returned, finally, to that afternoon in the cold, the effect being not a story, a narrative, but an impression, a portrait, of my son. I didn’t have a title to it until it was finished—I called it, oddly enough, “Jacob”—and sent it off to publish.

Of course the description I just gave you includes within it all kinds of words I hate when it comes to talking about writing: there’s I realized, and I saw, and in no particular order, as well as the catch-all phrase that tells you absolutely nothing about what it means to figure out what was the problem, I figured out what was the problem. But I know of no other way to describe the moment of discovery but in the cheap and easy words I have used: there is no way to explain the split instant when an idea comes to you that says, Do this differently, than to allow into your head the possibility of the idea, Do this differently.

I wrote all those moments out of his life in order to approach the truth of my son in those moments, and not to appropriate them for the selfish act that can be the making of fact into fiction; I wrote them not to observe a postmodernist tendency, to explode a form, but to forge some way to tell the truth. I wrote them so as to find the way to write them.

Doing so—making something new, however, it will be done—calls for a kind of arrogance of faith that what one is doing might very well work. But because faith is by definition, according to the book of Hebrews, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” the end result has to be approached without knowing if indeed it will be found, but with the assurance, it will. Put that in your postmodern pipe and smoke it.

But even though the writing of that essay in the form it found strengthened my faith that the broken narrative could work in the memoir, I still didn’t go out and inflict that form on everything I found. I didn’t even think of it as a form. Rather, I thought of it as “that essay about Jacob.” And I simply continued to write—fiction and nonfiction both—but now knowing I’d done something different; I’d found the means by which I could tell the story I had.

Beyond that first effort—that first discovery—of a new way given me to find what I mean, there followed something of a laundry list of further experiments, perhaps chief among them an essay called “Toward Humility,” about the whole Oprah effect on my writing life. (Oprah was a famous American talk show host who had a book club way back when. Don’t know who knows that, but, well, one of my books, a novel called Jewel, was picked for the club, version 1.0, and it was a pretty big deal.) For one reason and another—we only have so much time here this beautiful Australian afternoon—the essay ended up being told in sections that move backward in time, from when Fame had been visited freshly upon me and I found myself riding on a Lear jet on the way to a bookstore, back to before the Force had called and the present book I had been writing was careening toward its imminent death; the essay also revealed itself to me as needing to be told in second person, and all in present tense, and that the sections ought to be numbered beginning at five and proceeding backward to zero instead of starting at six and ending at one. All of these discoveries were only made boots on the ground, in the middle of writing it. The only reason I can give for these narrative decisions is that in the desperate act of writing—I actually rub my forehead so hard when I write that my hairline sometimes bleeds—that the essay worked this way, that decisions weren’t made so much as discoveries found, intuitions heeded, hunches played, words written and thrown away and written again, until the thing worked.

More recently—and the piece I had heavily on my mind when I submitted my lotto ticket of a proposal to NonfictioNow and its attendant blessing of a trip to fair Australia—is a long memoir piece that will be coming out next year in a book of essays called Letters and Life. That’s right: I am now officially old enough to have a book with that sort of creaky title.

The memoir, titled “At Some Point in The Future, What Has Not Happened Will Be in the Past,” is about the death of my father, a piece against the goads of which I kicked for a long time before finally being forced, by matters out of my hands, to write it. Not until two years after he died, while I was in the midst of the next novel I was writing, did I begin the piece, setting down the novel because, I knew, the memoir head-butted me to be written. For the next two and half years I groped blindly, uncertain how to approach what the all of this memoir would be, until when I was finished, I had 110 pages, eighteen numbered sections and, as far as I can figure, at any given moment seven stories going on at once: (1) the present telling of the story and my self-consciousness at being unable to write it because I had no clue how to do it, coupled with that inability the fact I was the one of four children who ended up being a writer and who, by default, was the one whose responsibility it is to tell this story; (2) the story of the influence Raymond Carver had on my work, our radar blip of a correspondence early in my writing life and the couple times I met him, his reading of a few stories of mine; (3) the story of my being a teacher of writing and that responsibility in the lives of so very many people; (4) the story of my life as a writer who is a believer in Christ, and the attendant chimera that is the life of faith; (5) the story of my childhood and my father’s having instilled upon we his children his work ethic—his influence; (6) the story of his relationship to my life as a writer, the general aloofness he exhibited about this whole thing until Fame and Money stepped in; and (7) the particular story of his last days and my presence with him that week, then his death while I was en route to Israel for a writing gig, where I then spent a sleepless night in a guest house that looked out upon the walls of old Jerusalem, flew back the next day all the way to Seattle and to their home out on the Olympic Peninsula, and his burial thirty yards from Raymond Carver’s grave at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles.

It’s a complex story, to say the least, the writing of it only forced on me when, that one night two years after my father died, I sat marking up student stories, and wrote in the margin of one the words “will have had” in an effort to help the student understand the idea of the future perfect tense. That was when, suddenly and inevitably, the fact of my father’s death, and my obligation to write it, finally crashed through my grieving rebellious me, ushered in by a verb tense meant to represent that at some point in the future what has not happened will be in the past.

My father had died, an unimaginable thing, and here I was sitting on the other side of its fact. Once again, you don’t get any more deeply rooted in narrative than with its tense.

Finally, this: Form follows not function, but necessity; it follows no school or pretense—there is nothing postmodern about the nonlinear narrative form. There is only the necessity of a form to work the purpose the story itself is trying to tell, to work by the only means possible to become the being it is trying to find itself becoming. The successfully executed nonlinear nonfiction work is meekly and gloriously only the justified end of its straw-grabbing means.

There is a wonderful book everyone here ought to read, a biography called The Quest for Corvo, published in 1934, about an obscure British novelist from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one Frederick Rolfe, a certifiable genius and a certifiable nut who also went by the adopted title the Baron Corvo. But the book is more than a biography: it is simultaneously the story of the biographer, A.J.A. Symons, as he tracks down the Baron’s life; it is, in its own way, a kind of meta-narrative of the narrative of the novelist’s life, and is a brilliant work that is a shining example of the cross-pollination of biography and memoir. I know no other book like it. But I mention it here because there is a brilliant line from a letter Corvo wrote in response to an accusation by a friend that Corvo was, in choosing to live the way he did—freeloading off everyone and anyone who could give him a dime and then declaiming those benefactors as traitors once they stopped giving—that Corvo was selfish: “Selfish?” Corvo shot back. “Yes, selfish. The selfishness of a square peg in a round hole.”

Calling the nonlinear memoir a postmodernist tendency is something of an affectation, a kind of label imposed by those who want to claim the aberration as its own. But the truth is only this: the peg doesn’t know it is square; it also doesn’t know the hole is round. The peg only knows, This does not work. The folly isn’t in the relative geometries of the peg and the hole; the folly resides in the one trying to force the peg to fit that hole. It won’t work; it cannot work; it will never work.

The same is true of the nonlinear narrative. It doesn’t know it’s a postmodern tendency. It only knows it will only work because any other way will not; it is selfish in that it is always and only being itself, a square peg, which, finally, isn’t being selfish at all. It’s simply being the only being it can be.

I fear that our believing there are enforced codes of literary ethic—that there are prescribed forms for anything we need to write down, whether labeled postmodern or traditional—forestalls much genuine creation, and extinguishes much genuine revelation. The one thing I know about having written outside those forms is that the efforts have begun in desperation, a desire to find the best and only way to say what it seems needed to be said, and not knowing what that way could be; that desperation has led to a kind of blind groping that yields, now and again, a foothold in the cliff face that is the writing of an essay; that one foothold yields a kind of confidence that perhaps the next foothold will be there and that this blind groping might actually work. And then—surprise!—either one suddenly emerges at the top of the cliff. Or, well, one doesn’t.

I’m not gonna lie. There are no tricks to this. There are no shortcuts, no guarantees that claiming a postmodern tack will give you anything but a rubble of words. But what other option is there but to try, when what it is we want to say—the story we need to tell and want to tell and have no idea how to tell—calls for us to find the way it will be told? Who other will find the way, the tao, of the nonfiction narrative, than you? What is it you have no clue how to write, and why aren’t you writing it?

Bret Lott is the author of fourteen books, including the nonfiction collections Before We Get StartedLetters and Life, and Fathers, Sons and BrothersHe is nonfiction editor of Crazyhorse, and the director of the MFA in the Creative Writing program at the College of Charleston.
Photo Credit: Luke Rutan


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