Authors: Tracy Kidder
Whether they are told in the past or present tense, all stories require a governing time—the present tense of the story, as it were—in which the main events occur. McPhee establishes a firm sense of his story’s time by taking us some distance on the rafting trip, until we feel the pull of sequence, of the movement of the characters through time and space, and we can imagine
the river and ourselves along for the ride and are wondering what will happen next. Then McPhee feels free to take us on excursions away from the river and introduce us to yet another time, a past that precedes the river trip.
At one point, the conversation turns to the river’s water levels. These are controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream from the party of rafters. McPhee breaks away from the central narrative and after a visual break on the page writes:
What seemed unimaginable beside the river in the canyon was that all that wild water had been processed, like pork slurry in a hot-dog plant, upstream in the lightless penstocks of a big dam.
Then he tells us that “some days earlier” Dominy had taken him and Brower to see the dam. He dramatizes the visit, describing the place and the interaction of the two main figures there. This excursion—the recounting of another event in the midst of the main event—has important effects on the narrative, the kind of effects that justify departing from strict chronology. The digression varies the pace and enriches the texture. It also invites the reader to consider the wider context in which a small event takes place.
It is worth pausing over how McPhee manages this transition, from the river to the dam. Not the prose itself, elegant though it is, but the timing. He waits for a logical moment when he, the narrator, would be likely to remember that earlier trip. The departure is welcome, even necessary, though it is unexpected. If a story is well designed, the writer should be able to go
from one subject to a rather different one, from one time to another time, without giving off a scent of arbitrariness or struggle. Sometimes two parts of a story can simply be placed next to each other and the structure fits together like one of those New England stone walls that have stood for centuries without mortar in the joints. A writer who accomplishes this might well feel gratified to hear a reader think, “I could do that. That looks easy.”
I was sent to Vietnam in June 1968, when I was twenty-three and a second lieutenant in the army. I spent most of a year in hypothetical command of an eight-man unit, a “detachment,” performing an indoor job in communications intelligence. My men and I were never in combat and came under fire only once—from mortar rounds, which landed far enough away for us to boast about the experience afterward. I should have been thankful for the safety of my assigned role, and I was, in part. But I was also acutely aware that my life in a base camp could not be called valiant
During the first year after I came home, I told a few stories that suggested dark memories of combat. I also wrote a novel, called
the story of a young lieutenant who bore considerable resemblance to me, but who had various dramatic experiences I didn’t have. No one would publish my novel. For the next fifteen years I returned off and on to the subject of Vietnam. I wrote a pair of fantastical short stories about the war, and a long article about the postwar suffering of American combat veterans, all published in
Finally, I set out to write a memoir about my own modest truth
I thought it might make an interesting little book. Or at least an
unusual one—a memoir about a noncombatant’s experience, the most common and least recorded kind of American story from Vietnam. I would make it as accurate as I could, using whatever letters and documents I had kept or could find. For the unverifiable rest, I would be faithful to my memories
I had a problem, though. My memories embarrassed me. They weren’t horrifying or tragic, but when they arrived I wanted to bury my head in a pillow. Now, as I willed myself to remember, more and more stuff came back, and as I wrote about these remembered incidents, I fell into a mode that seemed safe but was really a trap. I surrounded true stories about my earlier self with commentary from my older, wiser self, including commentary asserting that I knew I was doing this. Among the arts of self-effacement, this is elementary. It’s called fishing for compliments. The book wasn’t working. Giving up on it felt good, like the next best thing to finishing it
I didn’t destroy the fragmentary manuscript. I put it in a file and went back to writing about other people. Some years later I took the pages out and worked on them and put them aside again, and I did the same once more some years after that. It took me the better part of fifteen years to understand what was wrong. It was, I think, a moral problem and a technical problem. The solution to the moral one was the time it took for me to accept my intimate connection with the bumbling young lieutenant. Todd had long ago suggested a technical fix
He had made the suggestion before I could employ it, back when I had just finished a partial first draft of my memoir. We were sitting in a booth at a restaurant. Todd was leafing through the pages. When he made a comment, I leaned across the table and wrote down what he said on the manuscript—which I still have, my transcriptions of his
comments written upside down. He had come to a page on which I had quoted from my war novel
, Ivory Fields,
by then a subject of comedy between us. He paused over this description of my novel’s title character, a black infantryman: “Black-fire, dark-pink coals were the lips that framed the shining teeth, threw shape around the sounds, the wind that rushed between their parting.”
“I must rise to defend these metaphors!” said Todd. He added, “This is a novel with a theme. Its theme is its author’s ambitions.”
Todd had, still has, one kind of laughter to which he fully gives himself. In the aftermath, he flicks tears away from his eyes with a forefinger. When he does this, you know he has been sincerely amused
. “Ivory Fields,”
he said, as if intoning the name of a departed friend. Then he got serious
In that first draft, I had described my novel scornfully, lest the reader wonder for a moment about my current taste. Todd told me, “Play the novel for comedy. The flatter the better.” He also said, apropos of the whole story, “Do without foreknowledge.” That is, don’t set us up by trying to disown the young lieutenant. Repossess him. Or, as Todd put it at one point that evening, “Just be there.”
Todd’s instructions called, in part, for irony. Not irony as mindless joking or nihilism. But irony in the older sense of saying one thing and meaning another, or of saying one thing and not saying the other. In short, irony defined as meaning
than you say. It is sometimes a source of comedy and more generally an expression of the incongruities of life, the tricks that the world plays on us and that we play on ourselves
When I finally found a tolerant attitude toward my memories of myself in uniform, I thought what was silly and strange and embarrassing
about my behavior would be plain enough without commentary. I felt that I should give up trying to place this memoir between my remembered self and me. I should stop trying to pretend that the “I” of the present couldn’t possibly be related to the “I” who had tried, in letters home, to suggest a picture of himself as a rugged guy who had found his true gentleness in war—one hand holding an M16, the other resting protectively on the shoulder of a Vietnamese boy
When I first sat down to write my memoir I already had a name for it:
Fifteen years later, I felt as though I had begun to live up to the title. Since my book was published I haven’t been visited by a single one of the sudden, involuntary, stomach-turning memories from my year at war. About once a year I used to dream that I had orders to go back to Vietnam. I haven’t had that dream again
Memoir beckons. Although the form dates back at least to Saint Augustine, it holds a particular allure for contemporary writers. Ideas about privacy and decorum have changed generally; even in daily life, Americans seem to expect more and more self-revelation from themselves and others. Authors who would once have felt obliged to wrap their own stories in the gauze of a roman à clef now feel entitled, or compelled, to speak to the reader without disguise. It feels more honest. And it can seem beguilingly easy, at least until one tries.
“Write about what you know,” writers are told, and it’s logical to conclude that what you know best is yourself. In fact, you may know too much. In honest moments we understand ourselves as
creatures of great contrariety. Many selves compete inside. How to honor this knowledge without descending into gibberish or qualifications worthy of a chairman of the Federal Reserve? How to preside over your own internal disorder? Finding the “I” that can represent the pack of you is the first challenge of the memoirist.
Postmodern wisdom has not helped, having cast the very idea of self, any self, into doubt. In his memoir,
, John Updike writes: “That core ‘I’ that we imagine to be so crystalline and absolute within us can also be attacked and analyzed as a construct that human society bestows.” Updike resists this idea, with evidence that ranges from the mundane to the spiritual: the private quirks that endure through a lifetime, mingled with the sense that one also has a soul. He concludes with a definition of self that is universal and undeniable: “that window on the world that we can’t bear to think of shutting.”
To place yourself on the page is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation. The act feels like what a lump of clay must feel like to the hands of a sculptor.
This is all you have to work with, but you know there’s a face in there somewhere
. You write a paragraph in the first person. You read it over. You meet—as if for the first time, though the face does look familiar—the person who speaks the words you have written. You think,
That’s not me. This guy sounds downright mean
. You pull out his fangs.
Oh, no. Now he’s getting mushy on us
. Writers want to be engaging, and it is easy to try to purchase charm at the expense of honesty, but the ultimate charm lies in getting the face more right than pretty.
Memoir, fortunately, doesn’t have to take on the burden of
total self-representation. It can be confined to a time, to a relationship, to a side of one’s self that doesn’t pretend to encompass the whole, to a story.
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
is one classic example. Grant omits many important facts of his life: his drinking bouts; the means of his extraordinary rise, from working as a clerk in a dry goods store to commanding all the Union forces; his disastrous presidency; his humiliation and bankruptcy; the fact that he was writing his book in great pain from throat cancer, knowing his death was imminent. But the book is cited as one of the very few presidential autobiographies that deserves to be regarded as literature, for its lucid and dramatic account of the author’s Civil War campaigns. One of Grant’s biographers, Edmund Wilson, pointed out that the book has the unlikely effect of keeping the reader in suspense—“actually on edge to know how the Civil War is coming out.”
Memoirs, it’s said, were once the province of people like Grant, the great or at least the famous, for whom self-presentation is already an accomplished fact. Now the genre has opened, opened wide to writers with no prior claim on the reader’s imagination. The current abundance of new and recent memoirs can feel overbearing, and even alarming, a symptom of spreading self-absorption. But if the democratization of the form has helped to create that oversupply, it has also produced some distinguished books. Often they tell the sorts of stories that Grant didn’t tell, stories that on the surface, anyway, don’t reflect kindly on themselves.
Confession as a means of reconstructing the self can have a keyhole-like fascination for the reader. Perhaps every memoir
reveal something the author doesn’t reveal in daily life.
But confession carries various risks. A sly vanity can lurk in a recitation of misdeeds, a reveling in one’s colorfulness:
Oh, what a bad girl I was!
Or one can end up presenting a much too limited concept of the self. Some, though not all, recent stories of addiction fall into this trap and leave the reader thinking, “There’s more to everyone than the love of vodka.”
How the writer conveys present knowledge of past experience is a delicate problem for all memoirists. The question of how much to reveal in constructing a self on the page merges into the fundamental question of how much to interpret and how much simply to describe. When to comment on the past, when simply to portray it in all its starkness and let it speak for itself? It can be tempting to disown the past only to celebrate the present self.
What a fool I was! (But how clever I am now to see it.)
And all the while the reader knows that previous selves are not so easily discarded.