Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”
“What Remains Unvoiced” by Richard Hoffman
I side with the slow, the introspective, the steady gaze, vs. the hurried, the hyperactive, the what’s-next. I believe Camus was right when he wrote: “A writer’s work is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” And so, I repeat myself, deliberately: I repeat myself in taking up the same themes, some of the same experiences, even the same events and characters.
I wrote a memoir, Half the House, that examined my post WWII boyhood in a family staggering under the burden of the chronic and terminal Muscular Dystrophy afflicting two of my brothers’, and my own suffering as a child raped at the age of ten by a coach. Nineteen years and five books later, I wrote a second memoir occasioned by my father’s illness and death, Love & Fury, that in delving into my own parenting and into my childrens’ lives, and into a revaluation of my father’s bequest to me, required me to revisit many of those scenes. It is impossible, if you are a memoirist not to do so. The question is how to do this gracefully and even turn it to your advantage. That being the case, I began both of those books in the same kind of moment, one mirroring the other, in one of those places where my heart first opened, at the kitchen table in my parent’s house. Here’s the opening paragraph of Half the House:
“It all depends how deep your brothers are buried,” my father said. We were sitting at the kitchen table and he was taking papers from a gray steel box, removing fat red rubber bands, sorting things into piles. “Somewhere I have a deed. The Sacred Heart allows double burial, at least that’s what old Mary Becker told me years ago. But you have to go down seven feet with the first one. Where’s my glasses? Here. No, that’s not it. We’ll have to see how deep your brothers Mike and Bob are buried.”
And here’s the opening of Love & Fury, at that same table a quarter century later:
“We’re sitting in the kitchen, at the scarred Formica table, my father and my brother Joe and I, having just finished the kind of meal we have had innumerable times in the twenty three years since my mother died: take-out hotdogs from “Yocco, the Hot Dog King” with a side of deep-fried pierogies, or maybe it was microwaved Lloyd’s Roast Beef Barbecue from a plastic container in the fridge, or strip steaks on the George Foreman Grill, with a side of microwaved instant mashed potatoes. I can’t recall for certain what we ate that night, maybe because my father has asked us to meet with him after supper to go over his will, and the two steel boxes have been there on the table next to the tall plastic bottle of orange soda throughout the meal, keeping their secrets to themselves. I know what’s in at least one of them, though: birth certificates, death certificates, account numbers, records, directions, the deeds to graves. It’s two weeks since he’s been diagnosed with MDS, Myelodysplasic Syndrome, a condition that, at his age, 81, almost always becomes leukemia. He has everything in order, he says. It’s all right here in the boxes.”
The third memoir, in- (slow)-progress titled The House Itself, begins with a scene of my younger brother Joe and I, the two survivors of a family of six, sitting at that same table.
There is a magic there that is hard to explain (although that Camus quote comes close) — that rickety kitchen table is a sacred site in memory, at once a foothold and a launch pad.
I find myself returning to other memories that seem to have that charge on them, that aura about them, and I suspect that means that I have not exhausted their capacity to reveal things to me. I want to cite a poem, here, by the British/American poet Denise Levertov. You’ll see its application from its opening lines:
TO THOSE WHOM THE GODS LOVE LESS
When you discover
your new work travels ground you had traversed
decades ago, you wonder, panicked,
‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already
all that was mine to say?’
There’s a remedy—
only one – for the paralysis seizing your throat to mute you,
numbing your hands: Remember the great ones, remember Cezanne
doggedly sur le motif, his mountain a tireless noonday angel he grappled like Jacob,
demanding reluctant blessing. Remember James rehearsing
over and over his theme, the loss
of innocence and the attainment (note by separate note sounding its tone
until by accretion a chord resounds) of somber
understanding. Each life in art
goes forth to meet dragons that rise from their bloody scales
in cyclic rhythm: Know and forget, know and forget.
It’s not only the passion for getting it right (though it’s that, too)
it’s the way radiant epiphanies recur, recur,
consuming, pristine, unrecognized –
until remembrance dismays you. And then, look,
some inflection of light, some wing of shadow
is other, unvoiced. You can, you must
I love the emphasis here: some wing of shadow/ is other, unvoiced. That’s clearly a shift away from emphasis on the writer, a reframing of the question: not ‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already/all that was mine to say?’ but instead what remains unvoiced? The poem seems to suggest that it is in fact this shift from the writer as one caught in the egoistic fear of repeating herself to the writer as a willing vehicle for that which needs — even, and perhaps especially, in a familiar situation — to be given a voice.
In other words, it is not a question of taking up a topic again, it’s more about the further elaboration of your understandings, or a modification of those understandings in light of new knowledge either about the people and events in your life, or — and here’s where the truthfulness of memoir is really put to the test — a new understanding of the person who is making the inquiry and curating the reader’s experience of that search. Or at least who that person is at this point in time. It has to do with this somewhat postmodern sense of our experience — that there’s always a “meta” dimension. For example, if I wrote about something one way and then I find myself writing about it another way or viewing it differently than when I wrote about it first time, then the question of what accounts for that difference is really my most important subject. We should never forget that we are making something from our experience, with words as our medium much the way a painter uses paint or a sculptor clay. Now this may be the result of my training and practice as a poet, but I think it liberates the personal essay and memoir — not from truthfulness or honesty, but from journalism, from primarily documentary narrative.
Truly re-envisioning things you’ve written about earlier might begin with deciding where you make the cuts that define the clip. ANY story is after all a clip, any story exists between parentheses, between a beginning and an ending that are equally imaginary. Moving those parentheses to include your previous “clip”s’ antecedents and/or consequences is one way of revitalizing the material, along with a deliberate embrace of the vantage from which you are writing: my first memoir was written as a son, my second as a grandfather — or more precisely, as a grandfather who was also, by then, a father, a husband, a teacher, a writer, and a son.
I’ve come to think that one of the worst things a memoir can do is fetishize the momentarily alive, as if we are not creatures of history inheriting the consequences of the past and wondering at what has yet to unfold as consequence after we’re gone. Such memoirs reinforce the defeatist notion that life really is bounded by those two dates on a headstone (the ultimate “clip.”)
I think that the way you are pulled back into certain themes, discussions, questions, the feel of that tug as you are working, gives you a sense that your life has a shape, a coherence, a kind of integrity that is not volitional or imposed. Of course this may well be an illusion, but tracing out that webwork, that deliciously inscrutable map, trying to body forth in words the intuition that there is, or at least was, some kind of pattern to it all, is, it seems to me, the quest at the heart of the lively genre we call memoir.
Richard Hoffman is author of the memoirs Love & Fury and Half the House, along with the poetry collections Without Paradise; Gold Star Road; Emblem; and Noon until Night; as well as the short story collection Interference and Other Stories. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. http://richardhoffman.org/