categories: Cocktail Hour
One of my favorite grad students recently had a book come out. It is a triumph of course—a first book, what could be more exciting?—but also, ultimately, a cause for pain. He had written about his family, specifically his dead father, and his mother and grandmother were angry and upset to have the family “exposed” in print. The student is a stable and mature sort and did his best to keep his equilibrium, but it was clearly deeply confusing and hurtful to have his words, which, objectively could only be considered loving and sympathetic toward his deceased father and family, be taken in the way they were. Usually when students come to me with fears about how their family will react, I calmly assure them that those fears are unfounded. But in this case the student lived out the nonfiction writer’s worst nightmare.
Of course as Thomas Wolfe will tell you, this isn’t confined to nonfiction. Among the general public, genre is not a distinction of great importance. All of us are open to these attacks of “exposing” our friends and family, no matter how we actually treat them in our pages. “If you write about people and say they are beautiful, smart and wise, they’ll be okay with it,” observed my wife, “But if you write about them and say they are beautiful, smart and wise, and occasionally get in bad moods, they’ll hate you.” I know a little, and really just a little, of what my student went through. When my wife and I returned to Cape Cod in 1997 we were returning not just to a landscape I’d written a book about, but to human beings I’d turned into characters as well. “Congratulations on your novel,” friends would say and I’d nod and take it as a compliment. My book was meant to read like a novel, after all, and I’d hoped to use novelistic techniques to show how the narrator–who just happened to be me–had changed over the course of an earlier year on the Cape.
But there was one catch. The book wasn’t a novel. Rather it was, theoretically at least, nonfiction, which meant that my “characters” were based on actual people and, for the most part, used actual names: friends, family, neighbors. Of course I had taken the memoirist’s usual license with other people’s lives, twisting and turning them to fit my purposes–“You nonfiction guys are the biggest liars,” says a novelist friend of mine–but given that, I had tried to write as honestly as I could. During the months after our return I would learn some lessons about honesty as an actual policy. And about sensitivity.
Even before we moved back there was the problem of my mother. She had never read a word of my writing before the book came out, and though I was apprehensive because of the book’s portrayal of my father, I was also excited to find out what she thought of it. The day the book was released she bought it at a store in North Carolina and read it straight through in a night. This I would learn later. I didn’t find out immediately because she didn’t call me. For two days I waited until the phone finally rang. It would turn out that she had been very affected emotionally and has come to love, or at least like, the book, despite its warts-and-all portrayal of our family. But what I heard coming through the phone line that day was the kind of qualified, restrained praise that my writerly (read: paranoid) ear knew as criticism. And, after a general heaping on of half-hearted compliments, she did let it slip that two things bothered her. Expecting a scathing critique of my paternal disloyalty, her actual complaints surprised me. First, she was angry at me for having transformed her beloved summer home into an overgrown shack. Relieved, I prattled on about “poetic license” and how–since the book was called “A Wild, Rank Place,” after all–I couldn’t very well appear to be living in the lap of luxury. (I would have thought that this would have been a relatively minor objection, confined only to the homeowner, until my aunt Judy told me about her surprisingly violent reaction to my description. She had spent summers in our house as a teenager and had romanticized the place and didn’t want anyone editing her dreams. She threw the book across the room three times on her first reading.)
My mother’s second complaint came from my comparing her to Walt Whitman. I wrote:
“If my father was the mad Ahab of this house, trying to instill his vision of order as he ripped out roots and mowed the lawn, my mother is our Whitman, loafing on the grass and singing a song of physical pleasure.
Like Whitman, she loves to brag.
‘Have I talked to you since my check up?’ she asked me once before my father got sick. ‘My doctor said, ‘I can’t believe this. You’re so healthy. You’ve got ninety-nine percent good cholesterol, and the blood pressure of a baby.’ He’s right, you know. I’m as healthy as a goddamn horse.’
Hers is a strange sort of bragging–happy and unselfconscious. It makes people like her.”
I thought this was a tribute to my mother. Her response: “I never said ‘I’m as healthy as a goddamn horse’–you make me sound like a truck driver.” My sister later testified that she had heard my mother use that phrase at least sixteen times, but no matter. What my mother said next really caught me off guard.
“I can’t believe you said I was like that airhead Whitman,” she complained.
That airhead Whitman. I had somehow imagined that being compared to America’s greatest poet was a compliment.
My mother was hardly like my student’s mother, though. For the most part she was proud of me, and my book, and she let me know it. The only time she really let me know how it felt was much later, when she sat in on one of my creative nonfiction classes. She sat there quietly, again proud of her son, until, at the class’s end and we were still sitting around the table, the students asked her a few questions. “What does it feel like to be written about?” She let the student know. In a second she went from quiet to full-blown monologist. And to be honest I had sympathy with the story she told, even though I was that story’s villain. As the storyteller I had never experienced the other side of things. What was it like to not be in control of your story? To have someone else present their side, their perception?
As I say my mother has come to appreciate the book–which makes me very happy–but there were other problems. Houses again got me in trouble. I had written honestly about some of my neighbors, specifically about what I thought of some of the buildings they lived in. The truth was that I was fond of most of the people on Sesuit Neck, just not some of their choices in architecture. It didn’t help matters that my mother’s hobby, when she returned for the summer, was telling everyone she met just which houses I had been referring to, like a cryptographer decoding that which I’d so carefully coded. Still, other than a couple uncomfortable moments at the post office, and a few overly hardy handshakes and fake smiles, there were no problems, which is to say they didn’t chase after me with torches and drive me out of town
“I thought your book was honest,” the woman who lived next door said one day when I walked by as she gardened. “You may not like houses like mine but it was honest.” Fair enough, I thought. The truth was I didn’t mind her house and its finely manicured gardens at all, and when they built they had been considerate enough to plant a row of trees to maintain the privacy of our front yard. I walked on, wondering what she had thought of the book’s third chapter, the one where the narrator (me again) ate psychedelic mushrooms and roamed the marsh like a stray dog, salivating and grunting and muttering to himself.
Another “character” (and the word is entirely apt in this instance) whose name I changed was Dickie Buck. In part, this was because I suspected the no one would believe his real name, though my last second fictional creation–“Sammy Mack”–wasn’t much more realistic. I had portrayed Dickie in what I felt was a positive manner, but hadn’t been shy about showing a few of his warts. Dickie was our town’s trickster and the second day back I saw him in his Corvette holding court in front of the post office. I hesitated, nervously wondering if he’d seen the book, but then decided to do what I’d always done. “Dickie Buck!” I called across the parking lot with a wave. He heard my voice and turned a glinting, mischievous eye my way. “That’s not your name for me!” he yelled back. And so I called out his fictional name: “Sammy Mack!”
Dickie’s typically over-the-top reaction to being made into a character was to turn himself into more of one. Well-muscled but small, he must have been closing in on sixty by then, but he still had a young man’s bounce and swagger. Perhaps it was in hopes of having his praises sung in print that he loaned us the woodstove for the winter, or perhaps because he was just generously doing the sort of thing he’d always done for me. Whatever the motivations, he brought my friend Hones and I up to his “shed,” a full bay of a garage jammed with an assortment of tools, toys, and parts: cars, half-cars, a one-man submarine, chainsaws, a dune buggy, a Sunfish, scuba gear. When he met us he was just back from driving a client to Boston in the limousine he rented out and was wearing a suit and tie. But he quickly pulled a Supermen in reverse, draping his mechanic’s overalls on top of the suit, and helping us with the impossible task of getting what seemed a two ton woodstove into the back of my little rusty truck. If it had been up to my wholly impractical mind we would be up there still, but he ran about like a manic elf, laying down boards and running the stove up into the truckbed on a dolly. As usual he spouted a running monologue spiced with wild but accurate facts of local and universal interest. It was only when he started quoting Robert Service poems that I began to suspect he was laying it on a little thick for the sake of the local author.
I had first met Dickie when I was about thirteen, just after I became friends with the Schadt family. The Schadts had been the subject of a one chapter hagiography in my book, in which I had deified both Heidi and her son, Danny. This presented a whole nother problem, as their main reaction seemed to be one of embarrassed pride. Danny actually was pretty straight forward and I think he liked being inside the pages of a book. But Heidi could never quite get around to letting me know how she really felt, even after a few drinks, though she kept threatening to tell me all summer.
Today, writing this essay, I chew over some of the old Wolfian questions about going home again. I don’t have any answers yet, but for me these are interesting issues to consider. When is it right to be honest? Is my loyalty to actual people or to my “art?” What about being a good person versus a good artist? Of course you can see from what I’ve written already that I’m fairly unrepentant. “You seem like such a nice guy,” a student commented in class the other day, “How can you write this stuff?” I assured her that one of the prerequisites of writing good nonfiction was being at least part asshole.
* * *
As you can see, over the years I have written about friends, family members, neighbors. But with my next book, My Green Manifesto, I will be entering new ground: I will be writing about my blog-mate. Don’t get too nervous, Bill, but, yes, it’s true. I don’t really write about you, don’t even mention that you have facial hair in fact. But I do write about your house, and in the sentence or two I devote to it I don’t think I say that it is beautiful, smart and wise. I’m hoping that your reaction will not be like that of my mother and aunt. It’ not that I don’t like your house, which I found quite charming and ramshackle and, for lack of a better word, homey. It’s just that the point I’m trying to make in the passage about it is the house’s relative modesty, at least in contrast with the miraculous stream and woods behind it. They might take away my nonfictionist’s badge for saying it, but in service of this point I might have shaded the house toward being a little less, so that the stream could be more. When Nina was reading the galleys she caught one of those exaggerations, which was in fact more than that: an outright error. I called it a “single story” house, thereby, with a single stroke of the pen, chopping off your entire upstairs. Sorry. This has been corrected for the final book.
But the following has not. Since you will be reading it soon enough, I might as well give you it straight out. I think you’ll be able to handle it, but houses can be very sensitive so don’t read out loud:
“While I did feel the need to set the stage and describe the river for you, I will, for the most part, be dispensing with the usual lyricism of nature writing in this book. My point here is not to describe the lovely world, but rather to make some points, though oddly my first point is that the world is still lovely, even when it is limited and somewhat un-wild. That is that, for all of environmentalism’s cries of doom, there are still places like [the Charles River] this flowing right through our backyards. Yes, the world is overheating, and yes, we will get to that, but how about, before the flames of apocalypse consume the planet, we still get to explore our neighbourhoods a little. I think of my friend Bill Roorbach, whose house in Farmington, Maine I visited not long ago. The house itself was nothing special, at least at first glance, a crowded single floor dwelling with warped floors that sat right on a paved road. But it was when he took me out into the backyard that I began to understand why you couldn’t shut him up about the place. Behind the house a great shambling garden grew, and that was just for starters. From the garden we walked out a path through the briars and woods, “down to the stream” he said, but when we reached the water, which I was expecting to look very docile and New England-ly and quaint, it was nothing like a stream. The small woods opened up and we were standing in front of a powerful surge of wide water, water that S-ed around and cut deeply into the opposite bank, water that looked more like a Western River than a New England brook. Instantly it became clear why he had brought me there, why he had showed me this before showing me his living room or study or anything else inside. He pointed to it with pride and without a word I got it. This is where I live, he was saying, This is why I live here. This is where I come to gather myself and be myself and to get beyond myself. This is where I come to get to know my neighbors, neighbors that include birds and beavers and muskrats and an occasional moose or fisher. And this is where I come to connect to the greater world since this un-stream-like stream eventually flows into the river and then that river flows into the ocean (which, come to think of it, connects it with my backyard.)
Well, his backyard is extraordinary, you might say, as was, for instance, Henry David Thoreau’s backyard, which held Walden Pond. But I think that is exactly the wrong point to take away. As a kid who grew up in Massachusetts, I can tell you that ponds like Walden are a dime a dozen, a few hundred others like it scattered around the state. “Oh, it’s nothing special!” people sometimes actually say when they first see Walden Pond. Which is the whole beautiful point! It’s as ordinary as it gets, and that is why it’s so important. It means that your own ordinary backyard might just be extraordinary, too. It means that your own territory might also be worth exploring.