Writing the Surreal Memoir

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“How do I put together into a coherent image the pieces of my life?
How do I find the basic plot of my story?”
__________________________________________________—James Hillman

The autobiographical impulse was first awakened in me during my sophomore year as a creative writing major at Pacific Lutheran University. In the fall of 1998, I enrolled in David Seal’s “Autobiographical Writing” course, curious to discover how I might begin to write my own experiences without the coverlet of fiction. Beyond the confines of my journal, I had never endeavored to record my thoughts or feelings, let alone the events of my life, without disguising them somehow. Autobiographical writing seemed an invitation to lift that veil and write, for the first time, of myself as myself. The prospect both enthralled and terrified.

Dr. Seal was a middle-aged man with piercing blue eyes, a yellow legal pad that seemed an extension of his arm, and a passionate interest in Jungian psychology. Frequently, he read aloud to us from a book he found indispensable to his own writing process, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman: “Each person enters the world called. The idea comes from Plato, his Myth of Er at the end of his most well-known work, The Republic. I can put the idea in a nutshell.” For me at nineteen, the easily mesmerized listener, David Seal and James Hillman spoke as one voice, one person:

“The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world.”

Dr. Seal paused theatrically to survey the room before continuing:

“As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus, we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belong to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s own choice—and I do not understand this because I have forgotten.”

He then sat down at the head of the seminar table, his eyes fixed on mine. “Write why you chose your parents,” he said.

“Me?” The gulp must have been audible.

“Everyone.” 

I puzzled over the Myth of Er for many weeks following Dr. Seal’s dramatic reading. I could not imagine why I would have chosen my body and even less why I would have chosen my parents, whom I had most certainly cursed but always in secret. Yet there was something tantalizing about Hillman’s proposition that “our lives may be determined less by our childhoods than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.” I remembered my childhood vividly, and yet I had never attempted to render my past on the page—to bring it to life for a reader. Who would I be in such an attempt: the victim or the hero? Surely these roles were too limited, too absolute. How could I represent my experiences in such a way that I would seem neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing? How could I inhabit that space between memory and imagination? 

***

tobias-wolffDr. Seal’s class was less an exploration of genre than an exploration of intentions. Why people wrote autobiographically was more important to him than how they shaped the autobiographical impulse into literary form. But it was hard for me to articulate why the experience of writing autobiographically proved so exhilarating; I could only say that it had been. “You have a lot of zeal,” Dr. Seal once remarked. “There is the zeal of the memoirist about you.” When I pressed for further explanation, he handed me his own dog-eared copy of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. “Read it. You’ll like it,” he said. “And you may find some interesting cross-overs, too.”

I wasn’t sure what Dr. Seal meant by “cross-overs,” but then I was rarely sure what Dr. Seal meant by anything. He enjoyed his role as provocateur, and I resolved to learn from his provocations. Reclining in the window seat of my college dorm, the appropriate posture of bookishness, I read my first memoir cover to cover, marveling at the freedom I was granted to explore the author-narrator’s mind. What happened to Wolff held my attention, but what kept me riveted page after page was the light he was able to shine into his own past darkness, and the invitation he extended his reader to do the same.

In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman writes: “Reading life backward enables you to see how early obsessions are the sketchy preformation of behaviors. Sometimes the peaks of the early years are never surpassed. Reading backward means that growth is less the key biographical term than form, and that development only makes sense when it reveals a facet of the original image.”

Was this what memoir meant then—to read life backward? It seemed a process rooted in self-discovery, driven by inquiry, the persistent impulse to revisit your own past and examine it as you would a text. In freshman philosophy, I had noted Søren Kierkegaard’s maxim, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards,” and before that, in high school English class, I had copied T. S. Eliot’s words in my best cursive and affixed them to my vanity mirror:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It seemed, in retrospect, that I had been thinking about memoir without knowing it for quite a long time. 

*** 

The next semester, as a student in Paul Benton’s “Twentieth-Century American Poetry” class, I encountered a new instantiation of the autobiographical impulse, a form that read as micro-memoir. One week late in the term we were assigned to read works by Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, and Sharon Olds, and I fell in love—instantly, hyperbolically—with the confessional poem. Another quote from my common book proved instantly apropos, so I made it my email signature line: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about herself?” Asked, then answered: “The world would split open” (Muriel Rukeyser).

I had found them at last! These were the women splitting open the world. They were poets, yes, and they were memoirists, too! They were writing of the self as the self, and they were not victims or heroes, neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing. How had they managed this? The time had come to set my sights on form.

In her 1993 poetry collection, The Book of Light, Lucille Clifton mobilizes her autobiographical impulse this way:

lucille-clifton“june 20”
i will be born in one week
to a frowned forehead of a woman
and a man whose fingers will itch
to enter me. she will crochet
a dress for me of silver
and he will carry me in it.
they will do for each other
all that they can
but it will not be enough.
none of us know that we will not
smile again for years,
that she will not live long.
in one week i will emerge face first
into their temporary joy.

A poem, I knew, or had come to believe, was a built thing, its architecture no less precise than any citadel. My task as reader-writer was to study the blueprints closely, to interpret the plans that enabled its solid and elegant construction. With Clifton, I noticed right away the deliberate use of future tense. In framing her retrospective, she went further back in time than her own memory would allow, setting her poem against the landscape of autobiographical imagining (“the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods”…). Then, instead of the more expected past tense to accompany a past account, she permitted herself to enter the past as though it were the future, positioning herself in that more-distant past at a time when the past really was the future. This meant going back to the week before she was born.

Clifton recounts to the reader a future-tense summary of her childhood, who her parents are (“a frowned forehead of a woman”) and what her relationship with them will be (“a man whose fingers will itch/ to enter me”); she also anticipates the sad outcome of her mother’s impending death (“she will not live long”). Dramatic irony enables Clifton to work against self-pity by shifting into the collective prospective of the past toward the future: “none of us know that we will not/ smile again for years.” She resists totalizing blame or easy explanations for the family dysfunctions and abuses that she implies: “they will do for each other/ all that they can/ but it will not be enough.” Most importantly, she leaves her own place in the story an ambiguous one, a flexible foregone conclusion: “in one week i will emerge face first/ into their temporary joy.”

In The Gold Cell, Sharon Olds’ 1987 poetry collection, the poet explores the possibilities of autobiographical imagining far more extensively than Clifton does:


“I Go Back to May 1937”
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

sharon-oldsOlds also places herself further back in time than Clifton—five years before she was born. She positions herself as poet-speaker like the spectator of a film, a film about her parents and their first meeting (“I see them standing”…, “I see my father”…, “I see my mother”…), and then she positions the reader as a second spectator, watching the poet-speaker as she watches her family history come to life before her on the screen of the page.

Olds intensifies her use of dramatic irony by imagining her own possible entrance into the scene. No longer only a witness, she envisions herself a potential participant in the unfolding narrative:

I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die.

Her use of anaphora here (“you are going to”) adds to the urgency and the understood futility of her pleas.

Like Clifton, Olds does not identify herself reductively as victim or hero. Instead, she directs her gaze toward the man and woman who will become her parents, emphasizing their vulnerability rather than her own. Ironically, Olds’ tone here is that of a parent, almost as if she is their parent, a sagely figure watching over them with palpable compassion:

her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body

By the time she tells her reader, “I don’t do it. I want to live,” the reader has entered Olds’ subjunctive proposition fully and willingly suspends the last of her disbelief. The reader, in fact, wants to believe that Olds has the power to stop this potential future from becoming her actual past, and the reader also faces the paradox that Olds must face. This moment in the poem is also the simplest and most honest response to the Myth of Er. Why did this poet-speaker choose these parents? Why did any of us choose our parents? Because we wanted to live.

This poem animates a mythic scenario in which the poet-speaker confronts the common understanding that we have no choice about who our parents are, then conjures a scene in which she has the power (which Plato and Plotinus would assert we always have) to alter this destiny—reject these parents, reject this life—and finally returns to the subject of her agency, phantasmal or not, to explain how her choice not to reject these people as parents is in fact her choice to accept them as parents after all. Olds identifies herself as more than a witness in her concluding epiphany by naming her role as confessional poet, as memoirist by the chosen vehicle of poem: “Do what you are going to do,” she commands her someday-parents, “and I will tell about it.”

Reading the work of these confessional poets was akin to an invocation. While Dr. Seal certainly encouraged all his students to shed their insecurities and write honestly about their most intimate truths, I had been searching for the form such inherently confessional writing might take. I soon began to translate my autobiographical impulses into poetry, which I recognized as an outlaw genre, neither “fiction” nor “nonfiction” but something beyond, apart, and else. A poem could be rooted in autobiographical truth, but it didn’t have to be. The persona narrating the poem could be a proxy for the poet herself, or she could be someone else entirely. Although I thought of my persona always as myself, poetry provided me with the experience of hiding in plain sight, writing of myself as myself with the freedom to plead, if I chose, the poet’s alibi: Don’t confuse the poet with the poem!

***

In fall 2000, as my senior year commenced, I signed up for an “Imaginative Writing” course taught by a visiting writer named Earl Lovelace. His approach, like Dr. Seal’s, was to respond to our innovations rather than to attempt to direct them. Imaginative writing meant just that—an invitation to write in a free-form, exploratory way, crossing genre boundaries as we saw fit, editing afterwards rather than censoring before.

On the night of the first workshop, I came to class nervous. I passed around copies of my new piece, then sat quietly until it was my turn to read aloud. My friend, Kara, had read the piece in advance of class and loved it. She said it sounded “different” from my other work, “bold” and “inspired.” Since a title had eluded me, Kara kindly offered one: “I think you should call it ‘Dreaming in Alpha,’” she said, “since you take your reader back in time to what happened first.”

Clearing my throat, I told the class, “This isn’t a poem exactly, and it isn’t a story exactly. To tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure what it is, so I’m just going to read it and hope for the best.” Professor Lovelace leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, as was his way. I cleared my throat again and began:

“I have walked this road before, in another life, my feet less deliberate on the shiny, rain-slick streets—my eyes less certain of their destination. It is 1963, and I am not born yet. In fifteen years, someone will imagine me. In sixteen years, I will arrive in a slippery, blood-soaked dream. But for today, I am No One, non-entity in the guise of woman, wrapped up in my mid-winter coat, hands stuffed deep inside my pockets to keep warm […]”

This was my first literary attempt at “reading life backwards,” my first trembling step down the memoirist’s path. In “Dreaming in Alpha,” I imagined meeting my father before he had met my mother. I pictured him there, at his college fraternity house, drawing on details from photographs I had seen and stories he had told about his past. Then, in my text, we encountered each other directly: I, the “non-entity in the guise of woman,” and he, my young future father.

I did not write this encounter in the hypothetical subjunctive of the Sharon Olds’ poem where she tells her reader, “I want to go up to them and say Stop,/don’t do it, she’s the wrong woman,/he’s the wrong man.” In my version, I do go up to them—both of them—my father first and then my mother. I stand and converse with my father on a Seattle sidewalk in 1963, sixteen years before I am born, and then I draw my reader, the way that Olds does, into the painful dramatic irony of all that I know about the future that my father does not know and that I will not reveal: “I want to tell him that in 1974 he will buy the house where I live now […]”

Boarding a city bus a few scenes later, I inhabit the subjunctive once again. I sit beside my young future mother as she travels to work at the Sears store downtown. I notice she is reading The Catcher in the Rye, so I try to make conversation with her about it. Holden Caulfield’s coming of age becomes a vehicle for us to speak about our own lives and to distinguish our preferences and points of view. Just as in real life, my mother hates the book, and just as in real life, I am eager to defend it. I use this scene to illustrate how different we are and to set the stage for our future conflicts. When my mother disembarks from the bus, I return to the role of witness, peering into the future through the windowpane of the past:

“With my mind’s eye now, I am watching. From there on the bus and deep in this dream, I look past the revolving doors of the old sagging structure—old even then in the winter of ’63—and I see beyond the shallow walls to the place on the basement stairs where she will meet him; how they will both be walking in opposite directions, neither intending to stop or stay; and how she will smile shyly, reflexively, and he will stick out his hand and clasp her fingers against his cherry-young palm: both of them, un-ringed, un-weathered, loose pages still unbound. I watch him escort her to his car, late night under a voyeuristic moon, and drive her home the way he likes best—by the water—where they will stop and think of things that maybe should be said, but never are.

“In fifteen years, they will imagine me; in sixteen years, I will arrive in a slippery, blood-soaked dream to consecrate their vow of almost happiness, sometimes honesty. Not quite…If anyone present knows of any reason why these two should not be joined, let him speak now or forever hold his…peace.”

Just as Olds imagines herself with the power to change the past, and consequently the future, I too entertain the possibility of that power. However, in my account, it is not the passive act of refrain—the poet-speaker who “holds her peace” by keeping silent—but rather a deliberate action on my part that wills the past-as-future into being:

“I rub my hands over the not-yet-tattered cover of J.D.’s masterpiece and turn the page. Inside is written, in certain purple ink, Linda Smith. It is my peace I am holding as I take this pen and scratch it out, the word—the single word—that stands between being and unborn. And with Elizabeth Bishop’s eloquence, that is to say her strength, or selfishness, I write it like disaster: my own life into their story. Linda Smith. Linda Wade.”

The class was silent when I finished reading. All I could hear was my own pulse thumping in my ears. At last, Professor Lovelace tipped forward in his chair: “I, too, am unsure of Miss Wade’s genre,” he said, “but she has certainly captured our attention with the poignancy of her prose.”

***

In retrospect, which is the memoirist’s way, I see that I had arrived at a delta formed by three rivers, a Pittsburgh of possibility: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. For most of my life, I had written stories, which, despite their frequent autobiographical inflections, were clearly cordoned off in the realm of fiction. In Dr. Seal’s class, I began my initial foray into nonfiction prose through the portal of autobiography. Later, in Dr. Benton’s class, I transferred my autobiographical inclinations into the outlaw genre of the confessional poem. But still later, in Professor Lovelace’s class, a certain kind of synthesis took place.

“Dreaming in Alpha” marked the fusion of my poetic, fictional, and nonfictional sensibilities. At the level of language and image, the text is based in poetry. The poet leads with her ear and her eye, and methodologically, “Dreaming in Alpha” was built from a close attention to the aural and visual qualities of the words:

“I am walking, and I do not know that I am dreaming, though somewhere in the deeper silence, I suspect it all along. Seattle wears a face with fewer wrinkles, a smoother stretch of cheek. Traffic flows between Seneca and James without congestion. The bright cars gleam: candy-apple, butterscotch, and tapioca. I want to call them classics, but they aren’t yet: these souped-up, rag-top wonders, their newness nearly edible to me. And see, I have wound back the clocks—or someone has—so what was once antique, today is avant-garde.”

You can hear the alliterative impulse in phrases like “deeper silence, I suspect it all along,” “face with fewer wrinkles,” and “smoother stretch of cheek.” The colors of the cars are described as “candy-apple, butterscotch, and tapioca,” so the reader’s visual and gustatory senses are mixed and simultaneously mobilized. This, for me, is the delicate, sensual work of the poet: an attention to every word and its placement in relation to every other word on the page.

The text also relies on fictional devices, such as the inclusion of dialogue and the use of foreshadowing. For example, in the passage that follows, the dialogue is used to develop characters and move the plot forward, similar to any short story told from the first person point of view:

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” the young man asks, pausing on the stair and looking back at me with a glint of recognition in his eyes: pale blue, watery, sincere.

“Me?” Surprised by the sound of my own voice…

“Are you in Dr. Callahan’s business class?”

“I don’t think I am,” I tell him haltingly. “No. I’m an English major.”

“That’s strange,” he says, still appraising me in a friendly, curious way. “I swear I’ve seen you somewhere before. Do you live here?”

I look up at the house, its magnificent letters etched in stone, its tidy blue awnings draped down from second-story windows like aprons over the knees of a fair-skinned maid.

“No, not here,” I say. “I’m from Seattle, though—west side.”

Likewise, the use of foreshadowing in the passage below directs the reader in her anticipation of what comes next, encouraging engagement with the unfolding narrative:

“He nods and sticks out his hand—un-ringed, un-weathered—still large enough to clasp my fingers tight inside his cherry-young palm, and this man whom I will someday love in a later life tells me his name: ‘I’m Bill Wade. It’s good to meet you’; and I, having no name but the name he will give me, reply, ‘I’m Julie,’ and he smiles.”

While “Dreaming in Alpha” relies on the same fictional techniques as many short stories, it may be fair to claim that the text should be classified as fiction for generic reasons as well. Since an unborn narrator cannot meet and interact with her parents prior to her own birth, regardless of whether or not they are based on real people, many of my classmates described the text as “experimental fiction,” but fiction nonetheless.

Wishbone“What about the fact that I’m using my own name, that I’m using my parents’ names?” I asked the workshop, still resisting a fictional designation. After all, I had written fiction before, but this piece felt different, both in the process of production and in its life on the page.

“Characters have to have names,” someone shrugged. “But it isn’t like this actually happened. It isn’t like it even could have actually happened.”

“Could we call it experimental nonfiction then?” I proposed. “I mean, my parents really did meet at the Sears store in downtown Seattle in 1963. My father really did pledge a fraternity at the University of Washington.”

Everyone, including Professor Lovelace, looked skeptical.

Later, Kara whispered in my ear: “Why don’t we just call it good writing and be done? Why does the genre really matter?”

***

I think genre mattered to me then, as it matters to me now, because I am a memoirist working at the intersection of memory and imagination. Wasn’t “Dreaming in Alpha” evidence of the literary possibilities of that intersection? While they were not my memories of my parents’ history, I drew from my memories of what my parents had told me of their past and what I had witnessed of their and our relationships in my own lifetime in order to imagine, with painstaking authenticity, that meeting in 1963. It wasn’t literally true, of course, as in factual, but metaphorically, it was the most honest piece I had ever written and rooted in a real history.

In graduate school, two years later, I enrolled in an elective course taught by Brenda Miller titled “Studies in Nonfiction: The Lyric Essay.” There, around a new seminar table, I gained another layer of retrospective understanding about the form a memoir could take. I came to understand that what I had written in college—that hybrid text of poetic prose—was sometimes called a “lyric essay.” Lyric made me think of Sappho, of Anne Carson’s new translation of the Sapphic fragments just released that year. Lyric, to me, meant, “fit to be expressed in song,” a literary commitment to making the language sing. Lyricism reflected my attention to language as a burgeoning confessional poet. Essay, as I had learned from reading Philip Lopate, meant “attempt.” He had eloquently described, in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, the essayist’s attempt this way: “to leap experimentally into the unknown.”

So I had been writing experimental nonfiction after all! “Dreaming in Alpha” was a lyric essay, I recognized at last: an experimental leap into an unknown past; an attempt to investigate that past through the dual roles of memory and imagination; an attempt finally rendered lyrically, prosodically, in the spirit of a poem, but instantiated in the long, unbroken lines of prose.

I am a poet, I thought, and a lyric essayist. In both genres, I was working as a memoirist with a Kierkegaardian mission: to understand life backwards. Not any life—not the fictional lives of characters I had created—but my own life and the lives that intersected with mine. Given my retrospective commitments, I was not yet looking to the future. I could not have imagined what was to come. In 2006, I would read a call for submissions from Cream City Review seeking “works of surreal memoir in any genre.” This would become another way to conceptualize my project in “Dreaming in Alpha.” So it was, I would recognize, generically speaking, a lyric essay, but it also belonged to a cross-genre cohort of memoirs these editors were calling surreal—allowing for more flexibility with time and fact in order to better approach the challenge of rendering truth on a page.

I would submit my essay and have it published there in good company. I would produce a series of works of surreal memoir, extending the subjunctive proposition of “Dreaming in Alpha” to include “Early Elegies,” “Third Door,” “The Flower of Afterthought,” and four surreal triptychs about the past lives of my mother, father, grandmother, and aunt. In 2009, my first collection of lyric essays, which I had titled Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures and which contained a surreal memoir sequence that began with “Dreaming in Alpha,” would win the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and be published the following year. My second collection of lyric essays, Small Fires, would win the Linda Bruckheimer Series for Kentucky Literature in 2009 and be published in 2011 by Sarabande Books.

small-firesMy work with the autobiographical impulse in the experimental nonfiction form of the lyric essay would find an audience. I would continue my graduate studies and begin my teaching career as a means of deepening my understanding of the creative process and how to speak about it. Inevitably, though, the events of my life in the interim, and the effects of my interdisciplinary work in the Humanities, would lead me to question whether the retrospective gaze of the memoir was the only way, or even always the best way, to conduct an investigation of the past. Hillman’s injunction to “read life backwards” was, after all, only one possible methodology for the memoirist’s pursuit of truth through memory and imagination.

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Julie Marie Wade
was born in Seattle in 1979, and completed undergraduate degrees in English and Psychology at Pacific Lutheran University and graduate degrees in Creative Writing and Literature at Western Washington University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Louisville.  She is the author of four collections of poetry, including the forthcoming SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016) and When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), and four collections of lyric nonfiction, including the forthcoming Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010).  A recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, a grant for feminist nonfiction from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.  She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in Dania Beach. And to our great fortune, Wade will be a guest faculty member at the Rainier Writing Workshop 2015 Summer Residency.

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