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Good Letters

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

— From “Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz

Recently, there has been some interesting and important discussion in this blog about the latest creative nonfiction debacle concerning“Margaret B. Jones,” aka Margaret Seltzer, who wrote about an imagined LA gang life. She was in fact, a rather young, nondescript suburbanite. I had read about Jones/Seltzer in the New York Times “House and Home” section a couple of days before the scandal broke; I remember thinking there was something off about her.

And so the dynasty of fraud continues.

Almost every creative nonfiction workshop I’ve ever attended has discussed the issue of honesty in the writing of memoir. There’s always a topical scandal, usually about a book, which focuses on what used to be called the horrific and unbelievable. I’ve never found these discussions compelling, because to me, the scandals are a no brainer—they exist in the context of a culture which is oriented toward sensation and a great maw of spiritual hunger.

I grew up in the generation of Catholics schooled after Vatican II. The manner in which we learned to understand our religious story was different from previous generations. The nuns who taught us in high school, delighted at their freedom, became activists. They delivered to us fervent seminars on the welfare state. These substituted for reading Augustine and pretty much every other classic thinker.

So I’m not much of a theologian and I am not sure what a Christian imagination has to say about memoir. But I do think this genre works better, as Larry Woiwode notes, when a story “is pulled forward in the wake of a larger story.” The stories that formed us as a culture, of course, used to be Judeo-Christian. These narratives, among others, provided meaning and context for our lives. They were elemental, in the way that bread and wine—the “immense call of the Particular”—is elemental in the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz.

In the Seattle Pacific MFA program, we read Genesis. Biblical exegesis came up in our discussions. Listening, it struck me how the Christian story moves back and forward in a loop of symbol and ritual. But all of this is rooted in a redemptive story, albeit one viewed from many angles. The subtlety and power of this story underlies my confusion at discussions on the nature of truth. Memory changes, although the narrative remains the same. My father has been dead for over a quarter of a century. Today, he lives with me as someone different from the man he was at the hour of his death. But I still think the arc of his and my story is the same.

The best memoirs I’ve read in recent years—John McGahern’s All Will Be Well, Patricia Hampl’s Virgin Time, Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother, David Plante’s American Ghosts—surrender to their stories, which are about both the loss of the past and resurrection. The central narrative of the past emerges willfully, of itself—whether in poetry, novels, or memoir.

There’s something freeing about surrender to what is already here. I believe that this is related to the Christian imagination. One trusts that one’s own story is compelling enough, because one has a less egoistic sense of its importance. As Plante noted in his essay “Parents, Religion, Writing”:

“If I believed the images that occurred to me while writing had meaning…something not inward but outward, as distinct from the writer’s and reader’s world as another world entirely, this was because of my religion…. I believed that every image that came to me had its meaning in it. Without it, writing was nothing, as my religion taught me that life was nothing without God.”

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