I’d find her. She’d be fine. But while I checked, the parrot would get stuck in the computer bag, the macaw in the drapes. The dream was frenetic and exhausting and not terribly hard to analyze…”
by ana maria spagna
“No one wants to hear what you dreamt about,” sings the band Built to Spill, “unless you dreamt about them.”
So true, so true! A dream sequence is a cheap transition – the wardrobe to Narnia, the wavery screen on 70s sitcoms – or an even cheaper metaphor.
But you know how the rest of that Built to Spill lyric goes?
“Don’t let that stop you. Tell them anyway.”
So, here goes. I woke mid-afternoon feeling woozy relief. In the dream I’d been in a room with beautiful birds, some small, elegant, and familiar—grosbeaks, finches, a tanager, even a chickadee—and some big tropical types: parrots or macaws, clumsy and over-sized like middle-schoolers. The birds flew round and round the room, and my job was to make sure they didn’t get hurt. Simple. Or so you’d think.
Most of them were fine. The small ones contented themselves with a few tentative loops around the room, then returned to pecking at the carpet. The big ones, though, the showy ones, kept getting themselves stuck in the drapes or in a half-open computer bag on the floor. I’d have to lean in and try to free them without getting them more discombobulated, and while I was doing that I had to try to keep a headcount of the others. Grosbeak, tanager, finch, thrush: check. But where was that chickadee hiding? I’d find her. She’d be fine. But while I checked, the parrot would get stuck in the computer bag, the macaw in the drapes. The dream was frenetic and exhausting and not terribly hard to analyze.
I’d just returned from teaching a week-long memoir writing workshop. Teaching memoir is tricky, of course, unearthing all that raw emotion, but I’d convinced myself that the danger isn’t all that grave. Students just get tangled up, thinking they’re stuck when they’re not; they’re not wary enough or calm enough; they don’t wait out the understanding or the inspiration or the turn of phrase. Impatience, that’s the problem.
Both theirs, and it turns out, my own. I’d brought them all into a room, set them free to explore hard new places then got huffy when it turned out they couldn’t handle it. They were lovely, these bird-students, but they were clumsy and foolhardy, careening over and over into the drapes. By the end of the week all I could think was this: I can’t do this anymore.
The truth is, even before that workshop, I’d been thinking of throwing in the towel. Not for the reason you might suspect: that teaching stole time from writing. Quite the opposite. Usually I found teaching kept my mind sharp, helped me to avoid mistakes, taught me tricks that worked, got me out of my tiny little seat-shackled existence. I liked helping people tell their stories, helping them understand the craft, cheering, cheering, cheering. And that’s where the trouble began.
Once a year or so, a student would throw a fit. False encouragement, he’d cry. You can’t like that other student’s story because that means my story is not as good as you said it was. Almost always there was a grain of truth to this complaint. I may, on occasion, have overstated my case, though a writer with a smidge more perception, a kernel of wisdom, would recognize that praise reaches everyone at the place where they are. When a coach tells a kid that he’s awesome because he sank a layup, that does not mean he’s ready for the NBA. But in writing, there’s always that audacious ambition. No one picks up a violin, and once she can make her stumbling way through a Beethoven piece, signs up for the symphony. No one learns to play tennis and packs for Wimbledon. But beginning writers, no matter how sheepishly, pine for print. Tell them their stories are good, and you must mean it’s ready for the bestseller lists.
But that, the delusion, wasn’t the whole problem either. I’m willing to nurture delusions– it was the dismissal out-of-hand of other writers, the ones in the class, sure, but also the real published authors I’d assign for reading. Thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s all they had to say. I blamed Siskel & Ebert. I blamed American Idol. I laughed it off. Armchair critics like armchair quarterbacks are a time a dozen. Get off your ass, I’d say. (Gently, gently, in not so many words). Let’s see who’s got game.
More disclosure. The writers who fussed, who made my life a living hell, who pestered me with emails demanding, more or less, to be told they were better than anyone else in class, were usually men. Men with their showoffy plumage. Men competing for their territory. Even though ninety percent of my students were women, ninety percent of the ego-related problems were caused by men.
More disclosure. The writers who succeeded, more often than not, were men. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me to say so, but men would stay with the task, revise and revise, and eventually improve, while women were more often stuck in the metaphorical drapes. Ninety percent of the sensitivity-related problems came from women.
But I digress. The problem is not ego or gender or even writing. It’s bigger.
Now that I’m wide awake, I might as well admit it. Memoir is all about feelings, and if I’m to give any substantive advice, any direction, it has to do with how to shape those feelings, not the sentences. Some memoirists write about abuse, a lot of them do, by a father, a brother, an uncle—mothers are not unheard of—or the assholes they chose to marry. Drugs, too: cocaine heroin, alcohol, and more rarely, prostitution or prison. Dying parents by the truckload. The gist of the stories, the very heart of them, is this: How did we not know this was coming? We did not know this was coming! And while life is baffling to all of us, during the hard living of it, too often the stories are old news to the agents and editors and teachers who have heard all this and more before in boatloads of manuscripts. And they don’t want to hear it.
The sameness squelches my own writing, yes. I’m just as lost in the too-aware postmodern world as anyone.
When I’m back at my desk, finger clicking away, and I get stuck and panic, there are a small handful of writer friends I turn to: naked, vulnerable, scared. They tell me this:
Ditch the past tense.
Re-order the paragraphs.
Think about the story arc.
Or even this: I hate that protagonist.
By saying these things, by pretending it’s all about the writing, they pull back the drape, unsnag my talons. Because the room is not the page, nor is it the classroom, nor the hip postmodern world; it’s our own brains, labyrinthine and marvelous.
We write to understand what we think, Joan Didion said. So true, so true! But there’s more! We write toward redemption and revelation, no matter how modest. And therein lies the real problem. In memoir, especially, a story without either is not a story, only a report. Students can write tens of thousands of words without getting there; they can craft character and conflict, add sympathy, evoke nostalgia and question it, hone their voices. But can they fabricate redemption? Revelation? They can’t. And I can’t tell them: Be redeemed! Have a revelation! I can only say: ditch the past tense, re-order the paragraphs, for god’s sake don’t write about your dreams!
At the end of Harold and Maude, young Harold admits tearfully to dying Maude “But I love you!” Maude takes his hand. “That’s beautiful,” she says. “Go and love some more.”
Maybe that’s all I can say: go and write some more. Which in terms of my dream means there’s a way out of this stuffy room, of course there is, but for each bird it’s different, and finding it is difficult, and some of the bird-writers, I’m afraid, are not up to the task, and when that becomes clear, and I can’t even point them in the right direction, I can hardly bear to watch. All I can do is cheer them on, the beautiful birds. Keep flying. Keep flying.
(illustration: john richen)
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes happily in remote Stehekin, Washington, where there are no phones, no stoplights, no taverns and no churches, but a very pretty river and many many trees. Her book, “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey” won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. More from Ana Maria Spagna can be found on her website as well as in the Vault of Smoke.