Thursday, July 28, 2011
If Memory Serves
In the rapidly disappearing bookstores on the boulevards of America, the memoir has become as ubiquitous as rain. We can read the words and memories of autistic children, progeny of drunks and acrobats, the woman who made her way through Harvard by sleeping in the library. It is a rich and varied story, the memoir, shaped by elements of fiction and narrative, and often treading heavily on the border between truth and illusion. “This is my story, the way I saw it, the way I believe it happened to me, and if you don’t remember it that way, write your own book!”
Most readers do not realize that much of the overheated prose simmered in the juices of reflection can be traced back to one book: Stop-Time by Frank Conroy (Penguin, 1977) originally published in 1967. The book was an instant classic, a finalist for the National Book Award. Conroy went on to write novels and essays, even doctored some screenplays, but he never achieved the level of success of his memoir. He became the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1987 to 2005. He was not, however, your typical academic or writer. He was an accomplished pianist, winning a Grammy in 1986, and he influenced generations who wandered the halls of the English-Philosophy Building on the Iowa campus. He died of colon cancer in 2005.
Stop-Time is not a story about writing, although writing plays a huge role in the book. Conroy gives us a life on the pages that could have gone either way—artist or criminal—and offers us a glimpse of the boy who barely escaped into adulthood. He forces the reader to engage in his story by utilizing, quite effectively, the narrative trick of fragmenting the frames of memory. Events pass by us, like the landscape rushing by the windows of a train, and if we do not pay attention, we miss out. He also does not stick to a strict chronological telling of his life story. But all of this makes the book evocative and involving, and demonstrates that Conroy, above all else, was a gifted writer. Moments are frozen in place like butterflies trapped in amber. He holds them up to the light to let us see the gossamer wings with the subtle and gross imperfections of the human condition.
Conroy is very good at capturing the non-sequitur nature of life, the seemingly random events and twists that we are left to puzzle over years later. Hindsight, the cliché goes, is twenty-twenty, but often even in the rearview mirror, we are tempted to look at scenes from the past and ask ourselves, “What the hell did that mean?” Conroy does an excellent job of letting the scenes speak and allowing the reader to create sense and meaning.
I came to read Frank Conroy’s memoir when I picked up a more recent book at the store, Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, 2010). Grimes’ book is his reflections on the role Conroy played in his life as a father-figure and mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The two writers approach the subject of their lives very differently. After reading Conroy, I found Grimes’ take much more conventional. It unfolds in a more chronological manner, and focuses on the writing life. This is not to say that Mentor is flawed. It is an excellent study of what it means to be a writer, the sacrifices, the rejection, the mental health issues, the disappointments and rejections. Ultimately, though, it is a tribute to the power of a mentor in an artist’s life.
Grimes’ book is less fragmentary and episodic. If one is looking for inspiration and solace in the writing life, this is the book to read. Here is the writer’s manifesto: “This is why I write. It’s my way of controlling my world and my emotions. I focus on sentences. For several hours a day, nothing else matters. I live inside language. And while I’m often frustrated by writing’s difficulty, I’m also at peace.” Grimes, in one short set of sentences, defines the writer’s paradox.
Most gripping is Grimes’ account of his sister’s suicide attempts and his own downward spiral into depression and paranoia. Like his mentor, Grimes examines all facets of the memory, and does not hesitate to lay his own bloody soul on the table. His is an honest book, the kind of writing that leaves no shadows or darkness unexplored.
The writer’s life is difficult and uncertain. Grimes takes us through the maddening odyssey of getting a book published. Feast or famine is the rule, but even when feasting, the success is momentary and ephemeral. It is on to writing the next book, which might involve years of slaving away at the desk.
The most moving part of the book is when Grimes takes us through the end of Conroy’s life. Grimes now runs his own MFA program at a university in Texas, although his life is still deeply entwined with that of his mentor. They move from teacher-student, to father-son, to writer-to-writer, a deep communion of friendship and art. In one of his last calls to Conroy, the sick and dying mentor asks his former student, “You know I love you, right?” From the reserved and stoic Conroy, this is a major revelation, and Grimes struggles to find words to respond before the older man hangs up the phone. It is left to the student to sum up the relationship between the two men and their books: “I hadn’t expected to write this book,” Grimes says, “but, in a way, our memoirs form bookends. His about childhood, adolescence, and a lost father; mine about writing, teaching, and a father found. Our story has come full circle.”
Both books are excellent, full of emotion and insight. Writing a life is harder than writing a novel, but not by much. Frank Conroy and Tom Grimes do both, and we the readers are the richer.