"My own remembering was too isolated and memory alone wasn't enough. I wanted proof, and I wanted it in ink."

The Biographer’s Dilemma

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On October 14, 2014, I had the honor of presenting Oakland University’s President’s Colloquium Address, in which I considered the role of biography in contemporary literary culture.  Some thoughts from that talk –

 

Let me begin with a premise — As a literary form, biography appeals to many readers precisely because it avoids lots of thorny discussions and difficult challenges about the meaning of a text. Modernist and post modernist literature want to disrupt the reader, it wants to challenge us with difficult questions about authorship and authority and truth and reality.  books

In bookstores filled with magical realism, science fiction, surrealist, futuristic and fantasy worlds populated with magic, muggles and vampires – in such a range of literary options, biography stands out as a safe haven, a place where readers can be confident that they’re entering into a real and knowable world.

 

Biography is understood to be objective, to be based on facts, to be reliable and true; in biography, the author’s role is quite clear. To read a biography is to engage with a stable and authoritative text, a story with a beginning, middle and end, a tale that promises to be, in whatever way, relatable. In 1939, during a time when biography was considered still “a young art” Virginia Woolf wrote an essay examining the genre, and in it she declares, “The novelist is free. The biographer is tied.” Woolf writes that biography “imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.”

But these conditions also create the biographer’s dilemma, and the dilemma is this — how can biographical truth ever be ascertained?

We look to biography for more than a life in writing—we look for lessons, heroes, guidance, warnings.   As Paula Backscheider notes, “Biography explicates the symbolism of lives, can turn lives into symbols, and is itself always a socially symbolic act.”

VirginiaWoolfI began this talk with a quote from Virginia Woolf and I’m tempted to end it by citing Scott Donaldson, who advises, “Never write a biography of someone whose children are still alive.” Or I could quote Meryl Seacrest, who titled her memoir after the first rule of biography: Shoot the Widow. But I don’t want that cynicism to be the message that you take away from this talk. Rather, I believe that the broader meaning surrounding the biographer’s dilemma comes from precisely the complexity of these problems and from the questions they raise. Biography, that socially symbolic act is also an act of life writing. We read biographies to measure our own lives against others, and when we follow the trail of a biographer’s dilemma, we discover that the lives of others can not be so easily known, so easily understood, and in knowing this, we can expand the possibilities for meaning of our own lives.

If you’d like to see s video of the full talk, including the question and answer session, it’s here:

Keening

In the past two weeks, I have found myself sobbing as I read the final paragraph of a book. I’m not talking about a few tears brimming over my eyelids here and there – I’m talking full-throated keening, in the fetal position, unable to catch my breath.

I had to wonder, what’s up with that?

The books in question were both written by women — one fiction, Short Girls by Bich BKGIRLS_SU_C_^_SUNIQMinh Nguyen, and one nonfiction, Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild. And wildwhile they differ in many ways, they both ended with a glimpse of the future. In each story, the future-telling gesture was such a delicate and understated thing, and yet I found myself wholly slain in the face of it.

It’s one thing in fiction; these are invented characters, after all, and their futures can be invented as well. I sensed, as I moved through the final pages of Short Girls, that Linny would be okay in the end, I hoped she’d move on. And I thought that would be enough. Still, as the novel’s conclusion blossomed well beyond my expectations for closure, as Nguyen’s elegant fiction satisfied my deepest desires for this fictional character …. surely, my keening was as much a desire for myself to be okay as it was in gratitude for Linny’s denouement. I hadn’t, until that moment, even been aware that I wasn’t okay myself.

The stakes are different in memoir, of course, and anyone who comes to the final pages of Cheryl Strayed’s lovely book these days does so with the clear knowledge that she ended up okay herself. She ended up better than okay, in fact, happily married, successful as a writer, friends with Oprah and Reese, exchanging friendly tweets with Diane Ladd. But she didn’t know it then, she couldn’t possible have known it then — not as she sat on a picnic table on that final day of her hike, not as she sat at the keyboard on that final page of her manuscript.

I’m not even on the final pages of my manuscript. I’m still so lost in the wilderness of writing that I don’t know what the end looks like. I’m not even entirely sure where I am most days. But if Bich Nguyen made it, if Cheryl Strayed wrote her way through the story, maybe I can too.

Getting out of the wilderness of life, however, that’s another matter altogether. That still has me keening.

Work in Progress: Pregnant

The following essay appeared in the 2013 issue of The Bear River Review.  More information about the Review, as well as instructions for ordering a copy, can be found through this linkTake Root Dance choreographed  their interpretation of an earlier version of this essay as part of Art X Detroit in 2013.  If you’d like to see that dance, here’s a link (scroll down to “Take Root at the DIA Part 3″).  It’s an extraordinary performance.

I’ve been working to revise and expand this essay, but it’s slow going.  Dear readers, I’d welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Pregnant

When I came home from the hospital in 1964, my infant wrist was adorned with a pink beaded bracelet that named me – Girl Pfeiffer — in tiny black letters on tiny white plastic cubes.  But by 2003, when my son was born, a computerized printout nylon tag marked him as mine.  So much has changed between my own birth and my son’s.  My father wasn’t allowed near the delivery room when his first five children were born, yet my husband accompanied me to each obstetric appointment.  My mother had no companionship through her pregnancies and I had no privacy through mine.  18 weeks baby ultrasound scanning

Privacy is a luxury that stepmothers like me can rarely afford.  My stepdaughter was 7 when I became pregnant, and my husband wanted her to be a part of everything, so my body became community property.  I wanted to please him, and I wanted to be a good stepmother; I never thought to consider how I really felt about it myself.  We brought her with us to the ultrasound where the three of us learned that he was a boy.  She told him stories through my tummy because she wanted her brother to recognize her voice even before he was born.  One night, as I was relaxing in the bathtub, the bumps of his elbows and knees began rooting beneath my skin as I lay in the warm water.  I called my husband, to show him the movement, and he immediately got his daughter out of bed so she could see the undulations of my nude belly. “He’s swimming!” she squealed.  Todd hugged her.  “I think he’s waving at you,” he replied joyfully, eager to include her in my womb’s activities.

Later, on a thunderstorming night when she was too excited to sleep, she asked if I would lie in bed to keep her company until she nodded off.  So I lumbered my pregnant self into the twin bed that I’d outfitted for her in a pink and white Laura Ashley print, and we talked quietly together, making up stories about the next door neighbor’s barky dog.  The walls of our condo were so thin that we could hear her thumping around all the time.  When we first moved in, the noise had alarmed the little girl, until we explained that it was just Tessa keeping her safe.  That night, I tucked her comforter around her and rubbed the outer edges of her ears, a trick I’d learned that always quiets her restless moods.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she told me before she fell asleep.  I reported her comment to Todd later that night, and he beamed with pride, as I knew he would.  His admiration made me happy, and kept my growing discomfort at bay.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you either, Kath,” he said.  “You make it all happen.”  I felt this as a moment of feminist triumph at the time, and I smiled.  What I didn’t allow myself to feel back then, much less to recognize, was the weight of it all, an impossible burden far heavier than my pregnancy, with no due date in sight.

 

Safety

Emmanuel College was still a women’s college when I arrived for freshman orientation in August of 1982. Sargent Harrington ran the security overview. A beefy, avuncular, Boston Irish former cop with piercing blue eyes, you could see that his intentions were good.

“Girls,” he told us, “if you wanna be safe, you gotta be scared. You gotta expect danger at any time, and you gotta have a weapon on you at all times.”

He taught us how to make artillery out of innocuous objects: we practiced holding our keys in between each finger, key as weaponclaw-like, and learned to always aim for the eyes. We learned that our elbows can be potent weapons, that we should be willing to jab hard, that we should kick, and aim for the balls. He encouraged us to always carry a lit cigarette when we went out, whether we smoked or not, because we could use it to burn a would-be rapist in the face, thereby thwarting an attack. He never said the word rape, of course. He was far too polite for that. (And anyway, in 1982, the language for date rape didn’t yet exist. The irony, of course, is that for many of us, the starkest threats didn’t come from strangers.)

Sargent Harrington’s lessons had a lasting effect on my life. For the 8 years that I lived in Boston, I never went out alone at night unless I could afford a cab, which wasn’t often. I try not to wonder too much about what I missed in all those years, because if I dwell on that, I get angry, it shuts me down.

I’ve been thinking about this because my fellow writer and former workshop companion Louise Yeiser McAlpin has just published an essay called “Protect” in the Ampersand Review. It’s a poignant, gripping piece, and it haunted me even when I first read it as a rough draft. I read it again online yesterday, and it reminded me of the fear that I was taught to live with, the first lesson of my college life.  How many women carry this fear, this anger that we always have to keep at bay?